Who Is Confucius And What Did He Do?

Chinese philosophy originated during the Spring & Autumn Period and the Warring States Period, during a fascinating period known as the ‘Hundreds Schools of Thought’. This period saw the rise of major philosophies such as Confucianism, Legalism, and Taoism, and this period was characterized by significant cultural and intellectual developments. Along with that, there was the rise of influential philosophers who greatly shaped the history and culture of China. One of these philosophers was Confucius, who was greatly associated with the Confucianism Philosophy. Read on to learn more about his life, his teachings, and why he is greatly valued in China.

What does Confucius mean?

A Confucian is described as a person who adamantly believes in the teachings of Confucius, the Chinese philosopher and author. Confucius was also a teacher, a poet, and a politician, who lived during the Spring and Autumn period. Traditionally, he is considered the epitome of Chinese literary works and his philosophical teachings and sayings actively formed the basis of East Asian culture and society. Along with that, he is still influential in China and East Asia up to date and his school of thought is valued the same as it was when he first introduced it to ancient China.

According to most historical records and other Chinese literary works, he is believed to have written and edited several Chinese classic texts, including all of the 5 Classics in China. His philosophical teachings, which is widely known as Confucianism, mostly emphasized governmental and personal morality, justice, sincerity in everything one does, kindness, and correctness of social relationships. Following the fact that his teachings addressed fundamental aspects of life, his philosophy became a great part of the Chinese social fabric and cultural patterns.

Unfortunately, his philosophy was greatly rejected by Emperor Qin Shi Huang of the Qin Dynasty who felt as though Confucianism was a threat to his rule, and several of his followers were terribly oppressed during this time. Later on, during the Han Dynasty, the Confucius school of thought was fully accommodated by the new emperor and it became a central guiding philosophy in the new government. In addition to that, Confucianism was also a great part of the social patterns and the way of life in the Tang and Song Dynasties.

Confucius – Early Years, Life, Teaching Career and Death

Confucius was born on 28, September 551 BC in Zou, which is currently Shandong province in China. At the time, Zou was controlled by the powerful Zhou kings, but the region was independent under the local lords of Lu, who regularly ruled from Qufu, a nearby city. His father, who was known as Kong He, was an early commandant of the Lu military unit and his ancestry traces back to the Shang dynasty, which existed before the Zhou.  Unfortunately, his father died when he was only 3 years old, so his mother (Yan Zhengzai) had no one to depend on and ended up raising Confucius in poverty.

When Confucius was 19 years old, he married a beautiful woman known as Qiguan, and together they had a son named Kong Li, and two other daughters, one of whom died when she was very young. When growing up, Confucius studied in schools that were designated for commoners and he managed to learn the six arts. During his early twenties, he worked various government jobs, was a caretaker of sheep and horses, and he was also a bookkeeper at one point in time. Sadly, his mother died when he was only 23 years old and had to mourn for three years.

Supposedly, Confucius belonged to the ruling class known as the Shish, out of which most people in this aristocratic class often served as scholars, court officials, and teachers. This explains why his first job was as a keeper of the greatly valued Lu granary. With time, he became a supervisor of the fields and he started building a rapport. Despite the fact that his occupations at the time were considered of low status, they were entirely consistent with his status as a Shih subject.

Not much is known about when exactly Confucius began his teaching career, but according to most historical records, it was before he was thirty years old. He spent a considerable amount of time studying and teaching, and in the process he was able to mobilize a large number of students around him. Through this he built a considerable reputation, and eventually he was appointed to the minor position of governor of a small town, and then later became the minister of crime in the region.

He greatly relied on diplomacy as a political strategy and often advised several rulers. He led revolts and assaults during his political career, out of which he made several enemies within the state. Reportedly, he met Lao Tzu (a famous teacher and philosopher) in 518 BC. During their encounter, Lao Tzu greatly criticized Confucius for his arrogance and unusual stuffiness. By the time it was 497 BC, he had very many powerful enemies and it was no longer safe for him to continue with his political career. So, he had to leave the state of Lu without resigning from his political position and had to remain in self-exile for a while.

Eventually, after a disagreement between him and the duke, he resigned in 498 BC and began a long journey across North-East and Central China with a few of his disciples. He shared his political beliefs in nearly all the states that they visited, but he did not see any of them implemented. Their lives were threatened severally, especially in the eastern states of Wei and Ch’en, and he was almost killed in Sung.

In 484 BC, when he was about 68 years old, the chief minister of Lu at the time invited him back to the state of Lu. Upon his return, he occasionally served as an advisor to a number of government officials in Lu on matters such as governance and crime. During this time, he also took time to work on multiple texts and documents and devoted all his time to teaching.

Sadly, his son died during this time period and one of his favorite disciple (Yen) died just when he had gotten to Lu. In 480 BC, another one of his favorite disciples, Tzu-Lu, died in battle and this completely threw him off balance. He was greatly burdened by the loss of three people who were closest to his heart and he was also frustrated by the fact that his political ideas were not supported by ruler of his own state. He died in 479 BC, when he was about 71 or 72 years old. He was buried in Kong Lin Cemetery, which is located in Shandong Province.

What did Confucius teach?

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Confucius has been credited as an author of several philosophical books and there is a lot he taught in line with the general nature of his philosophy. After he passed on, his disciples decided to honor him by compiling a text known as the ‘Lun Yu’. This text is described as analects and it features multiple conversations that Confucius had with different leaders and his students as well as those important conversations with his favorite disciples. In addition to that, the book emphasizes his teachings.

From the book, we learn that Confucius greatly emphasized on political philosophy, out of which he taught that the main role/the primary task of any ruler/leader who ascended the throne was to fully achieve the well-being and happiness of the people within his territorial boundaries. In order to accomplish this role, therefore, the ruler needed to start by setting a good moral example by checking his personal conduct. According to him, good characters from a leader directly influence’s the people’s behavior as they would constantly seek to become like their leader.

Along with that, he also introduced fundamental concepts that have shaped social patterns in China. The most important of these concepts are Li (the rituals and ceremonies of the land), Jen (which is basically benevolence), and Yi (which is simply propriety). He taught his disciples that the ‘gentleman’ is supposed to set the moral example for everyone else in their society to follow. According to Confucius, everyone should develop benevolence or kindness in their hearts and attempt to encourage it in everyone that they come across.

He further taught that Li were the rules ad rituals that needed to be observed in both religious and non-religious ceremonies, and as applied to the Chun-Tzu (that is, the gentleman) composes the rules that govern their behavior and social patterns. Yi, on the other hand, represents what is correct, right, or proper, in a particular situation that anyone faces. The gentleman (who was the main point of focus in his teachings) can always know what is right by observing the rules and rituals, and because of his good nature that he has constantly developed over time.

All in all, Confucius is often described as a humanist and is remembered as the greatest and most reasonable teachers in the history of China. His influence on his disciples and other students was very deep and they continued to explain all his theories even after his death. Later on, in the first Han Dynasty, which reigned between 206 BC and 8 CE, Confucius’ theories became the basis of the state’s ideology and his ideas shaped the social patterns of the people then.

What did Confucius believe?

Confucius is the proponent of Confucianism, which believes in ancestral worship and human-centered virtues as the fundamental basis of living a peaceful life. The golden rule of his philosophy is ‘Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you’.

Generally, there is constant debate on whether Confucianism is more of a religion than a philosophy. It is more of an ethical guide to living a peaceful and righteous life with a strong and well developed character that is beneficial to society. Confucius is worshipped as a spirit and there are several temples of Confucianism, where important civic and community rituals happen. In fact, his beliefs have greatly shaped China’s history, the social patterns and the culture of China.

The main idea surrounding his beliefs is that having good moral character is at the core of one’s existence as this can easily affect the world around you through cosmic harmony. To support his core beliefs, Confucius communicated that if the emperor of the land had moral perfection, the chances were that his rule would be as peaceful and as benevolent as possible. He was convinced that natural disasters and conflict were the negative results of straying from ancient teachings.

In addition to that, he believed that good moral character was achievable through the virtue of humanity, which involved positive behavior trends associated with humility, respect, and altruism. He was also convinced that education served a great purpose in achieving good moral values. According to him, people were naturally good and had innate characters associated with righteousness, however, they still strayed from appropriate forms of conduct. For this reason, he taught that all the rituals that exist in Confucianism were created and designed to bring out a respectful and humane attitude in everyone and create a substantial sense of community within any social groups.   

Confucius also believed in the idea of filial piety (the devotion to family), and this was a key concept to the Confucian school of thought. He believed that the devotion could take place in the form of submission to parental authority, ancestral worship or by using family metaphors to describe the emperor and those within his government. According to him, the family was the core unit of Confucian ethics, and devotion to family easily strengthens the society surrounding the family.  

What is the Confucius Golden Rule?

The Golden rule is simply the principle of treating other in the same manner that one wants to be treated. This adage, which is coined as the ‘Confucius Golden Rule’, is found in several religious and cultures. In some religions, it is valued as the ethic of reciprocity, while in others it is seen as a basic human value that everyone should uphold.

The Confucius golden rule often appears as either a positive or negative injunction that actively governs conduct;

  1. ‘Treat others as you would like others to treat you’ – this is more or less the directive or positive form of the saying
  2. ‘What you wish upon others, you wish upon yourself’ – this is the responsive, reciprocal, or empathetic form of the adage
  3. ‘Do not treat others in ways that you would not like to be treated’ – this is the prohibitive or the negative form of the saying

The Confucius golden rule (Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you) dates to the early Confucian time, which was between 551 and 479 BCE. Rushworth Kidder, who was a popular American author, professor, and ethicist, identified that this maxim appeared prominently in Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Taoism, and nearly all the other major religions in the world.

In terms of endorsement, over 143 leaders of the world’s major faiths/ religions have actively endorsed the Golden Rule as part of the 1993 Declaration Towards a Global Ethic. Along with that, the current president of the Harvard Chaplain Organization and a humanist chaplain – Greg M. Epstein, outrightly claims that the Confucian golden rule is a great ethical concept, and that belief in God is not necessary for anyone to endorse it.

Why is Confucius Famous and Important?

Confucius is valued and remembered as the first Chinese teacher who wanted to make education widely available for everyone in China and he was instrumental in establishing the art of teaching as a calling and an occupation at the same time. He is also important because he established very important moral, social, and ethical standards (under Confucianism) that formed the basis of a way of life and social patterns among the Chinese.

His teachings broke several cultural boundaries and taught the need for humanism across all parts of the world. In addition to that, his philosophical teachings have positively impacted populations of many East Asian countries, including Vietnam, Japan, China, and Korea, and are still revered till date. In fact, several educational establishments in Korea see him as an influential personality as a very learned teacher. They even celebrate his birth and death twice every year in a special ceremony known as the Seokjeon Daeje.

He also compiled the five classics, which were the texts that were a product of the state-sponsored curriculum during the Western Han Dynasty. These texts were written during the warring states period, and have survived up to date because they were compiled by this great philosopher.

Also, he greatly contributed to China’s educational system and he actively promoted education for the poor and the underprivileged. He broke any feudalism and aristocratic monopoly by setting up private institutions that taught the 6 arts to students of all social classes. At the same time, he served as a mentor to all his students.

In addition to that, he coined the concept of Meritocracy, which is all about the authority of a person based on a person’s ability/merit and not by noble birth. In line with this, he introduced the idea of the imperial examination structure that is seen in China today. This was mostly because he believed in the nobility of virtue and not that of nobility by blood.

Confucius Quotes and Sayings

Here are some of the popular Confucius quotes and sayings;

Confucius Quotes about Family

‘To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.’

‘It is not possible for one to teach others who cannot teach his own family.’

‘The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home.’

‘From the loving example of one family, a whole State may become loving, and from its courtesies, courteous; while from the ambition and perverseness of the one man, the whole State may be thrown into rebellious disorder. Such is the nature of influence.’

‘Although your father and mother are dead, if you propose to yourself any good work, only reflect how it will make their names illustrious, and your purpose will be fixed.’

‘When your father is alive, obey him. When your father has passed on, live as he did. If you do so for [at least] three years after your father’s death, then you are a true son.’

Confucius Quotes about Life and Death

‘Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.’

‘A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace.’

‘Without feelings of respect, what is there to distinguish men from beasts?’

‘If we don’t know life, how can we know death?’

‘Faced with what is right, to leave it, undone shows a lack of courage’

‘The gem cannot be polished without friction nor man without trials.’

‘Silence is a true friend who never betrays.’

Confucius Quotes about Learning

“Isn’t it a pleasure to study and practice what you have learned? Isn’t it also great when friends visit from distant places? If one remains not annoyed when he is not understood by people around him, isn’t he a sage?”

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

“He who excels in study can follow an official career.”

“Education breeds confidence. Confidence breeds hope. Hope breeds peace.”

Confucius quotes about Love

‘Wherever you go, go with all your heart.’

‘Love others as you would love yourself, judge others as you would judge yourself, cherish others as you would cherish yourself. When you wish for others as you wish for yourself and when you protect others as you would protect yourself, that’s when you can say it’s true love.’

‘When music and courtesy are better understood and appreciated, there will be no war.’

‘It is easy to hate and it is difficult to love. This is how the whole scheme of things works. All good things are difficult to achieve, and bad things are very easy to get.’

‘The perfecting of one’s self is the fundamental base of all progress and all moral development.’

‘To love a thing means wanting it to live.’

Confucius quotes about Work

“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life,”

‘It is not the failure of others to appreciate your abilities that should trouble you, but rather your failure to appreciate theirs.’

‘Those people who develop the ability to continuously acquire new and better forms of knowledge that they can apply to their work and to their lives will be the movers and shakers in our society for the indefinite future.’

Confucius quotes about Government

‘To govern is to be correct. If you set an example by being correct, who would dare remain incorrect?’

‘He who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place and all the stars turn towards it.’

‘In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.’

‘An oppressive government is more to be feared than a tiger.’

Final Thoughts

Confucius was not only an adventurous person and a virtuous man, but he was also a philosophical expert, a religious mentor, and a great author. Till date, he remains an integral part of Chinese civilization and has greatly influenced Asian history.

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