Wood engraving of Confucius (or Kong Fuzi [Grand Master Kong], 551–479 BCE). The teaching of the philosopher Confucius has inspired philosophers and statesmen for more than twenty-five-hundred years.

The philosopher Confucius, China’s greatest teacher, stressed such values as moral integrity and empathy and such practices as rule by virtue rather than by law. His teachings continue to influence Chinese and other Asian cultures.

Confucius is recognized as China’s greatest teacher. His family name was “Kong,” and his personal name was “Qiu” (stylized as “Zhongni”), but he was eventually given the title “Kong the grand master” (Kong Fuzi), which has been Latinized as “Confucius.” He was born in the state of Lu (in Shandong Province) in 551 BCE during the Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BCE). Confucius’s father died when the son was three; by seventeen, Confucius supported his mother. Confucius married at age nineteen, had two daughters and a son, and held a minor office in Lu. He dedicated his life to teaching but believed that he was called to reform the decaying Zhou culture.

At the age of fifty-one Confucius was promoted to magistrate and subsequently to the post of minister of justice. Discouraged by conditions in Lu, when he was fifty-six Confucius and his closest disciples traveled to other states to find a worthy ruler to implement Confucius’s teachings. However, after almost thirteen years Confucius returned to Lu to teach. Tradition says that he wrote or edited the Five Classics (Shujing, Shijing, I Ching [Yijing], Chunqiu, and Liji) and the now-lost classic of Music. Of the three thousand students he is said to have had, only seventy-two mastered his teachings, and only twenty-two were close disciples.

After his death Confucius’s reputation underwent a process of apotheosis (elevation to divine status). By the time of the philosopher Mencius (371–289 BCE), Confucius was called a sage. During the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) emperors often made offerings at his tomb, which became a shrine and later a temple. Confucius was given the imperial title “duke” in 1 CE, “foremost teacher” six hundred years later, in 637, “king” in 739, and “perfect sage” in 1013. By 1906, two and a half millenia after his birth, the ritual for the “emperor on high” was performed in the name of Kong Fuzi.

During the Song dynasty (960–1279) the scholar Zhu Xi streamlined Confucian education by compiling the Four Books: Mencius, Analects, Great Learning, and Centrality and Commonality; the Analects is usually considered most important. With typical “Chinese humility,” Confucius claims in the Analects to be a transmitter rather than an innovator. This claim is certainly not the case, but it displays the importance of maintaining historical precedent, namely, following the example of the ancient sages to practice self-cultivation, to sacrifice personal wealth and needs for the good of the community, and to rule by virtue rather than by law.

Confucius indeed was an innovative teacher. He opened his school to all serious students, even commoners, transforming aristocratic values into collective moral values. His teaching methods went beyond vocational training, emphasizing moral cultivation, which institutionalized the literati class and influenced Chinese history.

Confucius stressed literacy (wen) and required that his students be enthusiastic, serious, and self-reflective. His teachings are practical. He taught that all persons, but especially members of the ruling class, must develop their moral integrity by practicing ritual action (li) to express person-to-person care or humanity (ren) to become a consummate person (junzi). Empathy (shu), defined in the Analects as “never do to another what you do not desire,” summarizes his teachings in a single word. With the renewed interest in Confucius, even in the People’s Republic of China, his teachings continue to influence Chinese and other Asian cultures.

Further Reading

Ames, R. T., & Rosemont, H. Jr. (Trans.). (1998), The Analects of Confucius: A philosophical translation. New York: Ballantine Books.

Dawson, R. (1981). Confucius. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Hsiao Kung-chuan. (1979). A history of Chinese political thought (F. Mote, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Source: Sellmann, James D.. (2009). Confucius. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 493–494. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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