Confucius - The Man and the Myth

Confucius Facts and Myths

The examples and teachings of the great philosopher Confucius have had a lasting impact on Chinese civilization and the world. But during his own lifetime, Confucius's teachings were often rejected.

From Impoverished Orphan to Great Sage

The Life and Achievements of Confucius

Confucius is the Latinized form of the name Kung-fu-tze, meaning Reverend Master Kung. This illustrious teacher was born in 551 b. c. in the kingdom of Lu, now included in the province of Shan-tung. His father, Shuh Liang-Hei, was a valiant warrior of illustrious descent. By a first wife he had had nine daughters and a crippled son. In his old age he married a young lady who prayed to Heaven that she might be blessed with a son.

Before the birth of her child there are said to have been divine portents. A precious stone was left in the father’s garden, bearing the inscription, "A child is to be born, pure as the crystal wave; he shall be a king without any land.” The child had a curious prominence on his forehead, so that the mother called him Kew, “little hill.” The father died when Confucius was but three years old, leaving the family in straitened circumstances. The care and instruction of the child devolved on his mother, to whom he ever paid most respectful obedience. In boyhood he was noted for his carefulness in performing all ceremonies. His favorite play was to go through the forms of politeness prescribed by ancient rules. At school he was distinguished by obedience, modesty and quickness of intellect. At the age of nineteen he was married, and soon afterwards was made a mandarin. His first official duty was to superintend the public market, afterwards he had charge of the public lands.

Through his sagacity great improvements were made in agriculture, by which abundant crops were produced and the tillers of the soil rewarded with plenty.

But the desire of Confucius was to be a teacher, and many youths were ready to be taught by the capable man. Whatever fees they could afford to give were acceptable, but the master insisted on their having a desire to learn and capacity to profit by his instruction. “When I have presented one corner of a subject,” said he, “ and the pupil cannot go on to learn the other three, I do not repeat the lesson.” But when Confucius was twenty-four years old, his course was interrupted by the death of his mother. Having caused the proper ceremonies to be performed, he buried her with his father, declaring that “ those who had been united in life should not be parted after death.”

Confucius then spent the prescribed term of mourning, thrice nine months, before resuming any public duty. Filial reverence and worship of ancestors are the fundamental principles of Chinese morality. During his retirement Confucius devoted himself to a careful study of the ancient writings and was impressed with the duty of restoring the doctrine of the sages.

Yet not till he had passed his thirtieth year did he stand firm in his convictions on all subjects of practical wisdom. In 517 b. c. two noble youths joined his band of disciples, and Confucius was enabled to visit the capital of the kingdom of Chow and examine the treasures of the royal library. The kingdom then was about one-sixth of the present Chinese territory. It was divided into thirteen states usually called kingdoms. They were feudal governments, and each ruler was often in great measure independent of the central authority.

On his return to Lu, Confucius found that State in disorder. The marquis had been defeated in a struggle with the inferior nobles and fled to the neighboring State of Tsi. Confucius refused to countenance the rebels and went to Tsi, accompanied by many disciples. On his way he observed a woman weeping in a lonely place, and sent one of his followers to inquire the cause. She replied, “My husband’s father was killed here by a tiger ; my husband was also killed, and now my son has met the same fate.’ Being asked why she did not leave so fatal a spot, she replied that here the government was not oppressive. Confucius therefore said to his disciples, “ Remember this, oppressive government is fiercer and more dreaded than a tiger.”

The Marquis of Tsi was embarrassed to know how to treat Confucius, who was not a man of rank, and yet offered excellent counsel. When a considerable revenue was proposed, he refused to accept it unless his counsels were followed. Finding no suitable place he went back to Lu and for fifteen years remained in private life, teaching his disciples.

In his fifty-second year Confucius was made chief magistrate of the city of Chung-Tu. It is related that his exact administration effected a marvelous reformation in the people. Then the marquis, brother of the one who had fled to Tsi, made Confucius minister of justice. Two of his disciples were also placed in influential positions. Nobles who had abused their power were punished. Some of them had maintained themselves in strongly fortified cities. Confucius sought to dismantle these and to render the Marquis of Lu supreme in his dominions. But the Marquis of Tsi saw that this course would exalt that ruler above himself. To counteract the influence of Confucius he sent to Lu a company of beautiful women, trained in music and dancing, and a troop of fine horses. The weak prince yielded to the pursuit of pleasure, and Confucius, being neglected, left his native State. In vain did he linger for a message of recall before he crossed the border.

The next thirteen years were spent by Confucius in traveling from State to State. Sometimes he was received kindly by the rulers, but none were found who would accept altogether his instructions. When exposed to peril or in danger of perishing from want, Confucius maintained his equanimity, while his disciples were sorely shaken in their faith.

In some places recluses were found who had retired from the world on account of the prevalence of wickedness. But Confucius, when asked in regard to their practice, said, “ It is impossible to withdraw from the company of men, and associate with birds and beasts, that have no affinity with us. The disorder which prevails among men requires my efforts. If right principles ruled throughout the kingdom, there would be no necessity for me to change its state." Yet the sage could not find a ruler who would accept his guidance.

In his sixty-ninth year Confucius returned to Lu. The marquis, whose neglect had driven the sage away, had been succeeded by his son. A disciple of Confucius had been successful in a military expedition, and now recommended the philosopher as a proper counselor. But Confucius would not take office again. His remaining years were devoted to instruction of his disciples and completion of literary tasks. His son died as his wife had died many years before, but the death of his favorite disciple, Yen Hwei, in 481 b. c., excited more grief. Then he exclaimed that Heaven was destroying him. Three years later his next beloved disciple, Tze-lu, died. One day, just after he had risen, Confucius was heard reciting a verse,

“ The great mountain must crumble,

The strong trees must fall,

The wise man must wither as a plant."

When Tze-Kung, one of his disciples, asked an explanation, Confucius told him that a dream had presaged his death. Seven days later he expired, 478 b.c. His disciples buried him with great pomp, and mourned for him for nearly three years. Tze-Kung continued mourning as much longer. The grave of Confucius is in a cemetery near the city of Kiuh-fow.

The tomb is a lofty mound, with a marble statue, bearing the inscription, “ The most wise ancient Teacher; the all-accomplished, all-informed Kung.” Nearby are the graves of his son and grandson. On the mound grow cypresses, acacias, the “crystal tree” and a plant formerly used for divination.

The enclosure contains many tablets erected by emperors of different dynasties in honor of the great philosopher.

More than two centuries after his death, the feudal system, which had hitherto prevailed, was overthrown by the Emperor Tsin. Finding the followers of Confucius an obstruction to his efforts, he entered on a fierce persecution, burying alive the professed disciples, and ordering the destruction of the ancient books which Confucius had exerted himself to arrange and preserve.

The dynasty of Tsin soon passed away, and the dynasty of Han sought to retrieve the loss by recovering the ancient books, and in every way doing honor to the memory of Confucius. Since that time each successive dynasty has vied in testifying its reverence for the moral instructor of the people, and all writers have extolled his example and precepts. Prior to the Communist Revolution, the descendants of Confucius constituted a distinct class in Chinese society. They numbered many thousands, and in the city of Kiuh-fow four-fifths of the inhabitants bore his family surname, Kung. Today the Confucius Geneology Committee verifies that there are 2 million direct descendants of Confucius; the interest in tracing one's family tree back to the great Master is a testament to the reverence still felt for him.

Confucius spent much time in transcribing, abridging and lecturing on the national histories and poems. The most ancient of these, the "I Ching” or Book of Changes, consists of sixty-four variations of straight and broken lines. These are now believed to have been syllabaries brought from Western Asia. But early Chinese writers gave them a mystical explanation, which Confucius accepted. Others used the combinations for divination. The only extended writing of Confucius is called “Spring and Autumn.” It is hardly more than a chronological table of the history of Lu from 722 to 481 b.c. But upon examination it appears that the historian took the strange liberty of making the events accord with his own notions of right. The Chinese commentators, while lauding the work in the highest terms, restated the facts with striking differences. In order to rectify evil dispositions among its readers the historian had suppressed the unpleasant truth and substituted specious falsehoods. Yet this untrustworthy compilation was assigned a place among the “Five Classics" of Chinese literature.

Confucius left no writings detailing the principles of his moral and social system. From his oral teaching his grandson Tze-sze wrote, “ The Doctrine of the Mean,” and his disciple, Tsang Sin, “ The Great Learning.” Other disciples compiled his discourses and dialogues in the “ Analects." Of later writers, who treat of his opinions, the most noted is Mencius, who was born in 371 B.C., and died in 288, being thus contemporary with Aristotle and Demosthenes. Mencius, while professing profound respect for Confucius, amplified his doctrine, acting thus somewhat as Plato did towards Socrates.

Confucius never claimed to have a divine revelation. Though he was scrupulous in performing the ritual ceremonies, it was out of respect for antiquity rather than belief in communion with God. For the older words denoting the Supreme Being or Almighty Ruler he substituted the impersonal term Heaven. Though Confucius said, “ I have long prayed," he did not command or even recommend prayer. Men were advised to study themselves. In the “ Analects ” it is said that there are four subjects of which Confucius seldom spoke—extraordinary things, feats of strength, rebellion and spiritual beings. Confucius did not attempt to explain the custom of sacrificing to the spirits of the departed. To an inquirer he said, “While you do not know life, what can you know about death?” But while Confucius avoided dogmatizing about spiritual existence, he had a strong belief in human nature, as fitting man to live in society, and to this his thoughts were chiefly directed. Good and evil would be recompensed by their effects either on the actor or on his descendants. His teaching was purely ethical. He emphasized the power of example, and urged upon all in authority the duty of benevolence. A bad man is unfit to rule, and will therefore lose the power of ruling. But a virtuous ruler will secure virtue among his subjects. The ideal at which he aimed he called “the superior man.” He considered all men as having moral sense, and that compliance with its indications is the rule of life. The duty of a ruler is to enable his subjects to pursue this course tranquilly. The following are some of his sayings with regard to the superior man:

“ The superior man is dignified, and does not wrangle; he is social, but not a partisan.”

“What the superior man seeks is in himself; what the inferior man seeks is in others.”

The loftiest of his utterances is his form of Golden Rule :

“ What you do not like when done to yourself do not do to others.” Though negative in form it was interpreted as positive in application. At the request of a disciple Confucius expressed it also by a single word or symbol {shu) meaning literally, “as heart.” This is imperfectly translated by the English word “reciprocity;” it denotes full sympathy with the feelings and desires of others.

Prior to the Communist Revolution, standards of ethics and morality in China were largely formed by the study of the sayings of Confucius, whether genuine or apocryphal. The learned classes could repeat every sentence of the classical books; the masses of the people delighted in recalling the Confucian maxims. All practiced the ceremonies which he constantly performed and enjoined.

Although the Cultural Revolution, and the recent economic boom have done much to alter Chinese society, many of its roots can still be traced back to the teachings of Confucius.

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