Confucius - The Man and the Myth

This is a website about Confucius.

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 name given to the great sage by Western Catholic priests, when they first encountered his teachings during missionary missions to China during the 17th century. The teachings of Confucius represented a competing philosophy and world view, but to their credit the missionaries sought to understand Confucian teachings rather than eradicate them, so that they could integrate Christian teachings into Chinese society. They were the first translators of Confucian classics into western languages, primarily Latin, French and Portuguese. However their most lasting achievement was to give the Chinese sage the name by which he is known today in the West: Confucius.

Confucius is a Latinized form of the Chinese name Kung-fu-tze, itself a Latinized version of the name using English phonetics and letters. In Chinese the name means Master Kung, or more precisely Reverend Master Kung, the honorary title being integral with his name because of the philosopher's great prestige and the veneration in which he was held.

In classical Chinese society, Confucius and his teachings were considered the foundation of all aspects of society including civil government, family life, and even military tactics. An encyclopedic knowledge of his teachings, largely recorded by his disciples, was considered to be the essential foundation of all education. Applicants to the Imperial civil service would undergo rigorous examinations which tested them on their knowledge of Confucius. His influence has waned somewhat following the Communist Revolution and the more recent turn towards a form of capitalism; however Confucius and his philosophy retain an important position in Chinese culture. Even today there is a sort of religion venerating Confucius as an esteemed ancestor, and while many may no longer realize the source of certain traditions and customs, they can often be traced back to his teachings.

The man who would leave an indelible stamp on China and its development was born in fairly straitened circumstances to an aged minor Chinese official and his much younger second wife, in the Kingdom of Lu. Although Chinese culture and language extended much of today's borders of China, at the time of his birth, the mainland was split into many warring states, which only paid nominal allegiance to the Chinese Emperor.

Until he birth of Confucius, his father had been unlucky by the standards of Chinese society. He and his wife had had nine daughters, incapable of carrying on the family name or to provide sacrifices to the ancestors or their parents when they passed on, and only one son. But this elder brother of Confucius was crippled and so unworthy of the family heritage.

To perpetuate the family line, the father of Confucius married a much younger second wife in hopes that he could produce an heir. His second wife did became pregnant. Legend indicates that there were divine portents indicating that the child was special and chosen by Heaven to be important and marked by destiny.

According to tradition, a stone was left by a dragon in the garden of his father with an inscription stating: "A child is to be born, pure as the crystal wave; he shall be a king without any land.” It is likely that this legend was applied retroactively to fit with the fact that Confucius would spend much of his adult life as an itinerant teacher and philosophy.

When the child was born, he escaped the deformity that afflicted his elder brother, but he did have an unusual growth or prominence on his forehead. His mother named him Kew, “little hill.”

Confucius's father died when he was only three years old, and the family was left in financial difficulties.

From the start, Confucius was a peculiar child. His favorite form of play was to learn and act the precise forms of politeness and etiquette, and he quickly gained expertise in the area of social correctness. His later more mature teachings would, perhaps not surprisingly, place a great deal of emphasis on duty which included not only obligations but the duty to conform to social norms and rigid decorum between family members and friends.

Despite the unusual start, the trajectory of Confucius's life developed in the usual way. He married at 19, not unusually young in that era, and he had a son by his wife though it appears that they were not particularly close. He also began what could have been a mundane career as a civil servant, being put in charge of the public lands. By all accounts he performed his duties well and made notable improvements in agricultural practices so that crop yields increased. This episode in his life is one of many examples where Confucius is depicted as a practical man capable of mastering any situation by applying his philosophical principles. It led to a certain world view in China which governed how problems and innovation were approached; some say that it had a stultifying effect, leading the intelligentsia to only look at issues through a Confucian lens.