Confucius: China's great sage

Confucius [23 Aug 551 BCE - 479 BCE]

Qufu, Confucius
Statue of Confucius at Qufu, Shandong

No guide to China would be complete without a fulsome mention of Confucius. He lived in the Warring States period of the Zhou dynasty. Every town used to have a temple with red walls dedicated to Confucius, these were called kǒng miào or wén miào. Every place which had a legend of a visit by Confucius would have a shrine and attract many visitors.

Born at Qufu in Shandong Province he traveled widely among the kingdoms offering advice to rulers who all refused his help but gathered a dedicated band of disciples. It was his followers who had more impact, some took up appointments and promulgated his views on wise governance. Confucianism is not a religion in the same sense that Islam and Christianity are; but Confucius is revered far more than just an ordinary philosopher such as Socrates . This reverence is due in part to the fact that he managed to live up to his own strict principles. For example he was the only one who followed the ancient rites on the death of his mother. It should be noted that the religion is not termed Confucianism in China, - that is a western name - the much more neutral term Rú jiào ‘literati teaching’ is used, in other words the study made by the educated élite.

His name in Chinese is kǒng zǐ or kǒng fū zǐ meaning “Master Kong”. As with many Chinese names the English version Confucius has evolved from the Wade-Giles system of writing his name phonetically with English sounds. Kong is the family name and his descendents (now at the 83rd generation) still live at his home town of Qufu and claim the longest documented family tree in the world. Every year his birthday on 23rd August is honored as a minor national festival throughout China and beyond.

Confucius was a teacher of the right way for a society to function. In his view human nature is naturally virtuous but needs careful control. An analogy he used was to study the flow of water; water naturally flows down (the way of virtue) but circumstances can sometimes force it to flow up, as in the splashing at the base of a waterfall (a turn to the bad). Man is born inherently receptive to 'good' but may be turned away from nature to evil. Some followers such as Mencius took the view that humans are born 'good' but this natural tendency needs reinforcement, others believed humans are born 'bad' and need rules and education to turn 'good'. He had no belief in an after-life or divine intervention, concentrating entirely on giving direction to the living. He is understood to have been a rather austere, inflexible and crusty man. His doctrine is grounded in the lives of men on earth and is not shrouded in superstitions.

For many hundreds of years a student wishing to become a government official needed to know the Confucian classics by heart. These examinations began as early as the Han dynasty (over two thousand years ago). At the heart of the doctrine is that people by studying become better people and that is why education and examinations have always been high Chinese priorities. Confucianism was the guiding doctrine throughout many dynasties and is still very important today. The classics are unusual that unlike the Bible for example there is no licentiousness at all - every word is delicate and decent. In the last ten years Confucius Institutes have sprung up all over the world; even the structure of the Chinese Communist Party is based upon Confucian principles.

Benevolence and Empathy

Confucius identified the roles and responsibilities of everyone in society so that they can live together in harmony. The strict relationships included the ones between ruler to those ruled but just as importantly between parent and child; husband and wife. He looked back from the turbulent times of the Warring States to the early years of the Zhou rule, which he considered a ‘Golden Age’ of peace and harmony. Broadly speaking Confucian doctrine defines the boundaries for relationships. When relationships are properly acknowledged people can live in harmony. Respect for parents (filial piety) is of the utmost importance, even after their death. One of the early fervent followers Lao Laizi went so far as behaving as a child in front of his parents - playing with toys - to keep them happy and feeling young even at the age of seventy. In essence he advocated taking account of the wishes of others rather than just yourself, always choosing benevolent behavior and the most harmonious path. The guiding principles are rén benevolence and shù empathy. He placed great emphasis on following proper procedure and the due ceremony (rites) lǐ. Later dynasties had senior officials whose sole purpose was to ensure the proper rites were maintained at all costs. Over time over 300 ceremonies and 3,000 rules of behavior were codified. Confucian teaching is expressed gently, not as a rigid set of rules. So a view is expressed as ‘It is said that…’ rather than personalizing an opinion. The use of the kowtow to physically demonstrate due reverence was an important acknowledgment of hierarchical relationships. In particular he saw that rulers must be seen to lead a virtuous life if they were to retain the support of their subjects - Confucians lead by example and act as gentle shepherds of people. The chief duty of parents is to raise virtuous children. Women have an equal place in this but men are expected to lead his wife. There is a natural aversion to conflict as violence is not constructive of a harmonious society. A scholar should use passive-aggression to indicate opposition rather than confrontation. He should be ready to admit to faults. There is no shame but honor in living in dignified poverty, it is the spirit not the outward show that matters. It is virtue that is important, certainly of more value than scholarship or wealth. This is a different perspective to that of Buddhism or Daoism where a more self-centered approach is taken. Similarly the Confucian system never had any monks or nuns, cutting yourself off from the family to start a life of lonely contemplation broke the most important Confucian rules.

Support for the Confucian doctrine was always strong in the scholarly aristocratic circles rather than ordinary working people. From the Ming dynasty onwards the overly doctrinaire and rigid interpretation of his teachings is widely regarded as preventing reform and progress. There have been periods when Confucian doctrine was rejected; these occurred in the Tang dynasty when Buddhism was dominant; the Taiping Rebellion and Mao's period as leader of the PRC. The Communist wish for continuous revolution and reform is at odds with a fixed hierarchy of relationships.

Confucius, sculpture, mural
Confucius mural

Rites and Rituals

A Confucian must turn his philosophy into actions and not just words; people are ultimately judged by their actions not words. Performing the appropriate rituals correctly is the physical embodiment of due courtesy and deference. The ideology has evolved many detailed and complex rules over the centuries to cover all possible social situations. This is necessary so everyone knows how to behave, there is no misunderstanding, fumbling or embarrassment. Following the rules in the true spirit is essential they are not just empty ritual, they help guide people towards good behavior and virtuous living.

A key set of ceremonies are coming of age (called 'capping'); marriage and funerals. Some of thee 'rituals' are codified in one of the ancient Confucian classics the Book of Rites ( Lǐ jì). These cover not only how to behave but details of what to wear, hairstyle and color of clothes. Coming of age was usually for men only when they reached the age of twenty and involved the ritual wearing of three caps in sequence. It marks the point when an individual is responsible for his own actions and no longer totally subservient to his parents. Some of the traditions became law. For example it was necessary to son to mourn for three years on the death of his father. The son should not eat for three days, only eat gruel for the next 100 days and should only eat fruit and vegetables after a year, and meat after two years. He should abstain from sex for two years and if his wife was to bear a child in the first year he could be sent to prison as punishment for lack of filial devotion to his father.

Strict adherence to these extensive and complex rules over the centuries had the effect of preventing progress and although they fell away under the People's Republic, there is nowadays a widespread movement to bring back some of the more general conventions to enhance dignity, social harmony and cultural identity.

Analects of Confucius

Confucius's teachings were only taken up widely in the Han dynasty long after his death. It was the work of his followers Mencius [372 - 289 BCE)] and Xunzi [313 - 238 BCE)] that cemented his reputation. Much later on in the Song dynasty, a new rigor was brought to the philosophy by Zhu Xi , founder of the neo-Confucian school. This is considered an evolution rather than a revolution in Confucianism. Confucius is believed to have written the classic Spring and Autumn Annals as well as the mainstay of Chinese study for centuries the Four Books and the Five Classics . His philosophical views are gathered into the ‘Analects ’ an assortment of sayings collected hundreds of years later. Typical sayings include: ‘In serving one’s master one should be focused on the task, not on the payment for carrying it out’ (Book 15.37); ‘To expect much from yourself and little from others is the way to cure discontent’ (Book 15.14); ‘Slow to anger; resolute; rooted and loathe to speak - such a person is close to Goodness’ (Book 8.27); and ‘When out walking with friends I am certain of learning from them. There are good qualities I will aim to emulate and bad ones I will seek to suppress in myself.’ (Book 7.21);‘People who study but do not think are lost. People who think but not study are a great danger.’ (Book 2.15)

The Analects were first widely available in Europe in 1687 in a Latin translation made by the Jesuits as ‘Confucius Sinarum Philosophus ’. This publication caused quite a stir and stimulated interest among European philosophers and theologians. Francois Fénelon wrote a rebuttal in his 'Dialogues des Morts' where he set up an imaginary debate between Socrates and Confucius. To many, Ancient China had supplanted Ancient Greece as the focus for the study of early philosophy.

Other important works include the ‘Great Learning’ Daxue and the ‘Doctrine of the Mean Zhongyong . In the doctrine of the mean the path to follow is always somewhere between extremes - often nowadays termed the 'third way'.


For a thousand years the works of Confucius were required reading for anyone aspiring to office. The Imperial examinations tested exact recall of his works. In effect knowledge about Confucius was tested but not understanding the philosophy. All scholars must have regarded this diet of rote learning with some dread. What was needed was a re-invigoration to make it more of a philosophy of life rather than a set of inflexible rules.

So standard Confucian thought was revised during the Song and Ming dynasties by such scholars as Wang Yangming and the Cheng brothers (Cheng Mingdao [1032-1085] and Cheng Yi [1033-1107]) who updated and broadened the philosophy.

The Neo-Confucian movement of the Song dynasty further invigorated the philosophy. The leaders were careful to build on Confucian teaching by building on core principles - a re-interpretation of original intentions not a rewrite. It broadened the coverage away from just ethics to metaphysics and cosmology so that Confucian scholars could answer questions that only Daoist and Buddhists had previously been able to answer. Zhu Xi (1130-1200) was the leading proponents of the new school of thought that used the concepts of lǐ and qi to explain the workings of the world. It can be thought of an a new synthesis of Daoist, Buddhist and Confucian thought. It embraced the Daoist taiji figure as representing natural cycles of generation and corruption. It moved away from mechanical learning of the works without understanding to self-cultivation and self-analysis. Confucian thought became a personal voyage of discovery instead of a set of rules to be imposed. For example although the knowledge of good and evil was inherent in everybody it was for the individual to make the judgments based on personal experience rather than following a book of rules and guidelines. This gave everyone a life long mission to become a 'sage' by critical observation of the world around them. It was no longer for government to tell people what to do, it was everyone to judge for themselves. A life-long quest for learning and understanding was the model.

The Neo-Confucian view succeeding in rescuing the Confucian writings from decline and can be regarded as still the guiding philosophy in China today. It is amazing that Confuncian thought has poignancy today just as it did over 2,500 years ago.

Confucius, Qufu
Temple of Confucius, Qufu, Shandong

Mencius [372 BCE - 289 BCE] or Meng Tzu WG

Without Mencius it is unlikely that Confucius would be known about today. In a situation rather like Plato with regard to Socrates; it was Mencius that refined and championed the work of his idol Confucius.

Mencius, philosopher
Picture of the Confucian philosopher Mencius. Image available under a Creative Commons license .

Mencius is widely hailed as China's ‘Second Sage’, and studied with Confucius' grandson. He was born at Zoucheng, Shandong where there is a temple honoring the life of Mencius, which is not far from Confucius' own birthplace at Qufu. His name in Chinese is Mèng Zǐ. According to legend and mentioned in the Three character classic his mother taught him the importance of rigorous and concentrated study by moving house three times just to find the best place according to Feng Shui for her son to study. To demonstrate to him the folly of laziness and lack of concentration she deliberated wrecked the cloth she was weaving. Like Confucius, Mencius then went on and visited the courts of kingdoms during the Warring States Period expounding his view on how they should rule wisely and justly.

His opinions on the role of people and government have been widely used down the centuries. They are at times contrary to Confucius's own views. For example Mencius' maxim that Those who perform manual labor are to be governed; those who toil with their mind do the governing. reinforces the age old examination system and the rule by an intellectual elite. His views were compassionate at the universal level, for example promoting care for the elderly as a basic right. He believed everyone had an underlying caring nature to those less fortunate - everyone has a sensitive heart; people are inherently ‘good’ and the state should nurture this inherent trait. One quotation shows this compassion for others “I like living and I like doing my duty to my neighbor; but if I cannot do both, I will fore-go life in preference to foregoing my duty”. Some of his writings had far reaching repercussions, in terms of the reaction to foreign aggression he held the view that it was not degrading for a ruler to abase themselves to another power if it maintained the welfare of the people. This partly explains the acquiescence to Mongol and Manchu rule as well as the reaction to the European powers in the 19th century. If accepting foreign control protected the well-being of the people then that was the right thing to do. On the other hand he made it clear that the people had both the right and the duty to revolt against tyrannical rule.

The ‘Discourses of Mencius ’ were part of the official canon of learned works and a core subject for the state examinations. Unlike the ‘Analects of Confucius’ which were not written by Confucius himself, the Discourses are considered to be solely the work of Mencius and his immediate followers. Like Confucius he looked back from the troubled period of Warring States yearning for the Golden period of government under King Wen at the end of the Shang dynasty.

See also