According to tradition, the Chinese philosopher and sage Confucius (circa 551-479 BC) was born in the village of Zou in the state of Lu (present-day Shandong Province) as a descendant of the noble K’ung clan. His original name was K’ung Ch’iu – the later name K’ung Fu-tze translates as philosopher or master K’ung. The Analects ( gleanings or sayings ) of Confucius have had a very profound influence on Chinese society and beyond.
His elderly father, district commander of Tsow in Lu, died when Confucius was three years old leaving the family in poverty. Confucius seems to have nevertheless received a fine education. As a child, he held make-believe temple rituals; as a young adult, he quickly earned a reputation for fairness, politeness and love of learning. He was married at the age of 19 and had one son and two daughters.
During the four years immediately after his marriage he was variously employed as a keeper of stores and as a superintendent of parks by the chief of the locally powerful Ki clan. His mother died in 527 BC, and after a period of mourning he began his career as a teacher. Not a teacher of schoolboys but rather as a teacher of a small body of disciples that had gathered around him in order to seek guidance in the principles of right conduct and good government. He is supposed to have accepted aid from his disciples according to their means but to have had little respect for those among them who did not really want to learn. His fame as a man of learning and character who had a great reverence for Chinese ideals and customs soon spread throughout Lu.
Through the family involvements of two of his disciples he became familiar with the court where he had access to the court library, became familiar with the famous musical style kept up there, and had a number of interviews with Lao Tzu the founding figure of Taoism. It would seem that the mystic Lao Tzu was not particularly influenced by Confucius but that Confucius was much impressed by Lao Tzu.
Confucius had little opportunity to put his theories to a public test and remained in a private station as a teacher until, at the age of 52, he was appointed chief magistrate of the city of Chung-tu. Such was the improvement in the behaviour of the people that the next year he was raised the post of Minister of Crime of the state of Lu with the result that crime was almost eliminated, the public became of better character and fractious barons were brought into submission to the ruler.
A marked growth in the power and influence of Lu was attributed to Confucius’ reforms such that the ruler of the neighbouring state of Ts’i maneuvered to secure the minister’s dismissal. By sending a large company of beautiful women and a troop of fine horses to Lu the ruler of Ts’i caused a considerable neglect of the welfare of the state by the now much occupied ruler causing a despairing Confucius to leave office in 496 BC.
Confucius subsequently traveled about teaching whilst vainly hoping that some other prince would again allow him to undertake measures of reform. In 483 BC, after a years of fruitless searching for an ideal ruler, he returned to Lu. He was then aged 69 and spent the remaining four years of his life in retirement involved in scholarly studies into the Chinese classics.
Confucius wished to be known as “a transmitter rather than as a maker,” and as such he worked to revive the study of the ancient books. He did not put into writing the principles of his philosophy; these were handed down only through his disciples. The Lun-Yii or Analects as compiled, it is believed, by some of his disciples, is considered the most reliable source of information about his life and teachings. The following sayings of Confucius are drawn from The Analects –
To have friends come from far away — isn’t that a joy?
One who goes unrecognized yet isn’t annoyed — isn’t that a noble person?
Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.
A man who has committed a mistake and doesn’t correct it, is committing another mistake.
By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.
He who learns but does not think, is lost! He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger.
The essence of knowledge is, having it, to apply it; not having it, to confess your ignorance.
To see what is right and not to do it, is want of courage.
The entire teaching of Confucius are not so much religious as practical and ethical. He sought to restore ancient standards of morality including the proper outward acts based on the five virtues of kindness, uprightness, decorum, wisdom, and faithfulness that were held to constitute the whole of human duty. Reverence for ancestors, living and dead, was one of the key concepts of this approach to a moral life. Individuals were exhorted to carefully observe their duties toward the state.
Confucius was greatly venerated during his lifetime. In succeeding ages Confucianism greatly permeated many aspects of China’s existence as a traditionalist and bureaucratic empire. Although he himself had little belief in the supernatural, he has been revered almost as a spiritual being by millions.
Confucius’ grave is located at K’iuh-fow and is to be approached via a magnificent gate and a fine avenue of cypress trees. Many memorial tablets bestowed in gratitude by several Chinese dynasties stand nearby bearing tributes to Confucius as an incomparable teacher.