His father died when he was young, and his mother brought him up under humble circumstances. Confucius founded a school of philosophy called Confucianism, which stressed ethics in personal and political life and which contended for acceptance during the era called the Hundred Schools of Philosophy in China that lasted between approximately 600 and 300 b.c.e.
By 100 b.c.e. Confucianism had become China’s state ideology, and Confucius was acknowledged as the Supreme Sage and Ultimate Teacher. Few people have had a greater impact on more people for two millennia.
Although many legends have grown around Confucius in later centuries, it is nevertheless possible to reconstruct a fairly accurate biography of him. Confucius had an education fitting for a gentleman. His hobbies were music and archery, but he had to make a living. He sought government service, but with a mission, which was to reform morals and bring peace. China was in an unstable state.
The Zhou dynasty was in decline, and the feudal lords who were contending for supremacy paid little attention to moral leadership. Thus, he had little luck finding acceptance for his ideas and turned to teaching as an instrument for reform. He was China’s first professional teacher, charging tuition, but only accepting students of integrity.
Whereas traditional schools for nobles turned out educated men who did their lords’ bidding, Confucius expected his students to play a dynamic role in reforming the government and serving the people. He taught more than 3,000 students, among them 72 were counted disciples. Most of his students went on to teach and further his legacy, spreading his ideals and debating followers of other philosophies.
Confucius wrote a book titled the Annals of Spring and Autumn (Qunqiu), which was a chronicle of his state of Lu. The book’s title gave its name to the era it covered. Its importance was his choice of words to describe people and events, called the “rectification of names,” that conveyed censure or praise. According to the famous Confucian Mencius: “Confucius wrote the Spring and Autumn and rebellious sons and disloyal ministers were overwhelmed with consternation.”
This book, together with the Yi Jing (I Ching), or Book of Change; Shu Jing (Shu Ching), or Book of History; Shi Jing (Shih Ching), or Book of Poetry; and Li Jing (Li Ching), or Book of Rites, constitute the Five Classics of the Confucian Classics and are the most revered texts of the Chinese culture. Confucius and his disciples are credited with compiling and editing the other Four Books of the canon and also writing appendices to them.
One of these, Lunyu (Lun-yu), or the Analects, which means “selected sayings,” was a collection of his sayings and conversations with his students that they gathered together sometime soon after his death. The Analects gives his views on things and events and paints him as a very human man focused on doing well by this world and not concerned about the divine and the next world.
Confucius saw himself not as a reformer or innovator but as a conservator and transmitter of traditional virtues. His goal was to return China to the golden ages of antiquity, to the era of the legendary sage-kings Yao, Shun, and Yu, and more recently to the era of the wise founders of the Zhou dynasty, Kings Wen and Wu, and the Duke of Zhou.
However, Confucius was a revolutionary in that to him the superior man who should lead achieved this status not by birth but by education and self-cultivation. When Confucianism was adopted as China’s official ideology, this radical criterion for assessing human worth would lead to the stress of education and the implementation of an examination system for recruitment of government officials that would make China a meritocracy.
Because humans are social beings living in society, Confucius inculcated the following ideals of conduct. One was li, which indicated rites, ritual, or proper good conduct under all circumstances. Another was ren (jen), which demanded love and benevolence toward all beings.
They should be practiced together to achieve full meaning. Since the family is the basic unit of society, Confucius also taught the virtue of xiao (hsiao), or filial piety, which is the honor and respect that children owe their parents.
Confucius expounded that there are five key relationships in life, as follows: between parents and children, husband and wife, elder and younger siblings, king and subjects, and friends and neighbors. Three of the five are within the family, because family is the microcosm of society, and it is in the family that the young learn their first lessons.
The first in each of the first four relationships enjoys higher status, but that comes with greater responsibility. For example the parents must not just feed and clothe their children but inculcate moral values and set examples for the children, who should love, honor, and obey their parents. If each person in any relationship behaves correctly according to his/her position, then the rectification of names has been achieved.
Beyond the family, a king who deserves the name should lead his people by good moral example and provide for their welfare; and the people should honor and serve him as they serve their parents. The only potentially equal relationship is between friends and neighbors, who should deal with one another honorably and humanely, but here again, the younger ones should honor their elders.
Self-cultivation and personal virtue are the hallmarks of the superior man, who had the duty to serve society. Confucius did not challenge the monarchical system of government but put a heavy responsibility of those in positions of power to lead well.
He said: “To govern is to set things right ... If a ruler himself is upright, all will go well without orders. But if he himself is not upright, even though he gives orders they will not be obeyed ... Lead the people by laws and regulate them by penalties, and the people will try to keep out of jail, but will have no sense of shame. Lead the people by virtue and restrain them by the rules of decorum, and the people will have a sense of shame and moreover will become good.”
He was no prophet, sought no divine sanction for his teachings, and believed in a natural and moral order for humans. To Confucius heaven was a guiding providence and human fulfillment could only be achieved through acting in accordance with the will of heaven. How can one understand heaven’s will? Confucius’s answer was to study history and literature because in them one finds the collective wisdom of humanity from antiquity.
He attributed the ills of his day to the neglect of the study of history and music and the observance of ritual. This is why he treasured ancient texts and why posterity attributes to Confucius and his disciples their collection into the canons. Although a man of personal piety and reverence, he did not concern himself much with otherworldly concerns.
When a disciple asked him about worship of spirits, Confucius answered thus: “We don’t know yet how to serve men, how can we know about serving the spirits.” On death he said: “We don’t know yet about life, how can we know about death?” adding, “Devote yourself to the proper demands of the people, respect the ghosts and spirits but keep them at a distance—this may be called wisdom.”
Confucius’s disciples continued his work of teaching, debates with other schools on philosophical principles, and of public service when possible. Among his great early disciples was Mencius, whose teachings were collected into a work that bears his name and who became honored as the Second Sage.
Another was Xunzi (Hsun Tzu), who also gives his name to a work. However, Xunzi is called a heterodox teacher who deviated from the true spirit of Confucianism because he argued that human nature was originally evil rather than good, as Confucius and Mencius asserted.
When China finally achieved unification in 221 b.c.e. under the Qin (Ch’in) dynasty, it was under a hardheaded and amoral philosophy called Legalism. Legalism and Confucianism were anathema to each other. The Legalist rulers of the Qin banned Confucian and other philosophical teachings and tried to burn all their books, allowing only Legalist and practical works to be studied.
Many Confucian scholars were killed during the brief Qin dynasty. The demise of the Qin in 206 b.c.e. resulted in the lifting of the ban on philosophical debates. Within a hundred years the Han dynasty (202 b.c.e.–220 c.e.) established Confucianism as a state ideology, and Confucius was honored as the First Sage.