As China was breaking apart, Confucius vainly strove to bring it together through virtue. He may have lost the battle in his lifetime, but his philosophy of statecraft colors Chinese society to this day.

Confucius is perhaps China’s most well-known philosopher and teacher. For more than two millennia, his teachings have exerted a profound influence on spiritual and political life in China and around the world. Confucianism has been described as many things—a philosophy, a political doctrine, a religion, and a school of thought. It may be best understood as a comprehensive way of life that embraces an intense reverence for the past, a strong desire for learning and self-improvement, and a belief that all people—whether noble or common—can
live virtuously.

Humble Origins

In life, Confucius’s name was K’ung Ch’iu. Later in life, after he became a
master, he came to be known as K’ung Fu-tzu, meaning “Master K’ung.” Confucius is the latinization of his Chinese name, which was brought to Europe by a Jesuit named Matteo Ricci (1552-1610). In 551 B.C., he was born near the city of Qufu, in the state of Lu ( in the present-day province of Shandong). Little is known about his childhood. The best source of information is theLun Yu (called The Analects in English), a compilation of Confucius’s teachings and sayings. He was orphaned at a young age and worked as a manual laborer.

After marrying at age 19, he started a career in government in the state of Lu. He worked his way up to become a district civil servant and was later named Minister of Public Works. He finally rose to Minister of Justice, a mid-level position that Confucius planned to use to reform the way the government did its job.

Importance of Ritual

When Confucius became Minister of Justice, China was undergoing an era of political and social instability. The influence of the imperial Zhou dynasty was weakening while small warring dukedoms were gaining power. The turbulent time became known as the Chunqiu—Spring and Autumn—period (722-481 B.C.).

Witnessing a revolution in Chinese society, Confucius urgently advocated for policies that he felt would reestablish social order and harmony. His recipe was, on the surface, simple: a return to the values of the earlier Zhou dynasty. Confucius believed that during that time the government demonstrated scrupulous respect for the rituals of the past. Confucius’s concept of the ritual was more social than religious. It is closely related to the ancestral customs that form the bedroc of Chinese culture. For him, the observance of ritual and virtue were a means
to maintain cosmic order

As a statesman, Confucius strove constantly to put his principles into practice. Once he was sent as an ambassador to meet with the prince of the neighboring state of Qi. On arrival, he saw that the prince had come accompanied by Lai—non-Chinese—troops.

“These barbarians will provoke ill will between the Chinese states,” Confucius said, asking the prince to withdraw them, as their presence “would be a bad omen from the perspective of the spirits . . . and from the perspective of men, a moral transgression.”

The ruler of Qi agreed to withdraw the Lai and the agreement was signed. At a banquet held soon after, however, more friction followed. Confucius protested at the lack of correct dishes needed to celebrate such a feast according to the established rites: “A banquet must serve
to showcase virtue, otherwise, it is better not to celebrate it at all.” In the end, the feast was canceled.

On the Road

Not surprisingly, Confucius’s rigid moral and ritual demands made him unpopular among the rulers of Lu. According to the Confucian philosopher and chronicler Mencius, the sovereign of Lu “did not adopt the measures that Confucius put forth, nor make use of his talents.” This fall from favor made it clear that Confucius “had to leave because the actions of [the rulers of] Lu had gone against the rituals.”

Historical sources differ on the exact reason Confucius abandoned his post in 497 B.C. According to the Lun Yu, Confucius was disgusted by the immoral practices of Lu’s prime minister, who had accepted a gift of singers and dancers from neighboring Qi and had neglected his duties in the palace. But according to Mencius’s account, Confucius was snubbed during a ritual sacrifice and not offered meat, a clear sign of his fall from grace: “He left right away, without even removing his ceremonial cap.”

Confucius was 54 years old when he went into exile. In the years that followed, he traveled from one Chinese state to the next, in search of a ruler who would appreciate his abilities and teachings. He was accompanied by a series of highly educated disciples, distinguished in the arts of diplomacy, economics, administration, and defense. His aim may have been to create a cabinet of wise minds to help him advise rulers to take the path of virtue.

According to historical accounts, Confucius’s quest to find noble rulers was not very successful. In the province of Wei, he came across a despotic princess. In Song, there was an attempt to kill him with a falling tree; and in Chen, he and his friends ran out of provisions. Once during his travels, an elderly man asked him, “Why are you so restless? Are you constantly traveling in order to put your persuasive powers to the test?” Confucius denied the charge: “I am concerned simply because the world persists in its ignorance.”

In the end, he gave up all hope of influencing politics: “Why does it worry you that I hold no post? The [political] world has lived long enough without moral behavior,” he once said to his friends, adding: “Heaven intends to use your master like a wooden clapper in a bronze bell.” With this memorable metaphor, Confucius conveyed the thanklessness of his philosophical task to awaken his contemporaries to a truly moral life.

Virtuous Life

Confucius’s doctrine was not limited to respect for traditional rituals; it also entailed a reflection on the moral life of every person, irrespective of their social hierarchy. According to Confucius, a nobleman was not someone who had been born into nobility, but rather a man who demonstrated irreproachable moral conduct learned through education. An unenlightened aristocrat was just an ordinary man, while an outwardly common man might be inwardly noble if he lived with moral integrity

Likewise, Confucius favored social ascent based on each person’s merits; intellectuals would take control of the government, swapping the nobility of blood for the nobility of virtue. This explains Confucius’s appeal among his students and followers, many of whom
came from varied social backgrounds. They included the highborn—aristocrats and the sons of gentlemen, like him—as well as merchants, laborers, artisans, soldiers, even former criminals, and the sons of criminals. They all addressed him as master—zi—and called themselves his disciples.

Confucius seems to have held a conversation in high regard, especially with his disciples. “Not to speak to a person who is capable of absorbing what you say is to let that person go to waste,” he once said. “To speak to one incapable of absorbing what you say is to let your
words go to waste.”

Of the very close relationships with his disciples, that with Yan Hui was undoubtedly his most prized. “Heaven has bereft me! Heaven has bereft me!” he cried out, on being informed of Yan Hui’s early death.

At age 68, Confucius returned home to Lu in 484 B.C. He continued teaching but left no written works; the Lun Yu was compiled by generations of disciples during the century following his death. Confucius’s political aspirations were never realized, and gradually he came to be seen as Master Sage rather than an enlightened politician. In this way, the Chinese emperors managed to neutralize the subversive power of his political teachings and establish a somewhat watered-down version of Confucianism, which survived as the state religion until the abolition of imperial rule in China in 1912. But Confucius’s influence has grown far larger and proved more enduring than he ever could have imagined.

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