Confucius, a wise sage who sought to educate his fellow citizens on the ancient wisdom of moral precepts, did not claim divinity, but had great faith in the power of education, righteous conduct and aimed to reform corrupt practises.
Confucius – Kong Zi, Kong Qiu, or Zhong Ni – was a Chinese thinker and social philosopher, whose teachings and philosophy have deeply influenced Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese thought and life.
His philosophy emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity. These values gained prominence in China over other doctrines, such as Legalism or Taoism during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). Confucius’ thoughts have been developed into a system of philosophy known as Confucianism. It was introduced to Europe by the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci, who was the first to Latinize the name as “Confucius.”
In the Analects, Confucius presents himself as a “transmitter who invented nothing”. He puts the greatest emphasis on the importance of study, and it is the Chinese character for study (or learning) that opens the text. In this respect, he is seen by Chinese people as the Greatest Master. Far from trying to build a systematic theory of life and society or establish a formalism of rites, he wanted his disciples to think deeply for themselves and relentlessly study the outside world, mostly through the old scriptures and by relating the moral problems of the present to past political events (like the Annals) or past expressions of feelings by common people and reflective members of the elite, preserved in the poems of the Book of Odes.
His mother died in 527 BC, and after a period of mourning he began his career as a teacher, usually traveling about and instructing the small body of disciples that had gathered around him. His fame as a man of learning and character and his reverence for Chinese ideals and customs soon spread through the principality of Lu.
Living as he did in the second half of the Zhou (Chou) dynasty (1027?-256 BC), when feudalism degenerated in China and intrigue and vice were rampant, Confucius deplored the contemporary disorder and lack of moral standards. He came to believe that the only remedy was to convert people once more to the principles and precepts of the sages of antiquity. He therefore lectured to his pupils on the ancient classics.
Confucius taught in his school for many years. His theories and principles spread throughout China by his disciples, and soon many people learned from his wise sayings. The concept of time and its movements was of great interest to him.
Confucius also heavily emphasized what he calls “rites and music,” referring to these social conventions as two poles to balance order and harmony. While rites, in short, show off social hierarchies, music unifies hearts in shared enjoyment. He added that rites are not only the way to arrange sacrificial tools, and music is not only the sound of stick on bell. Both are mutual communication between someone’s humanity and his social context, both feed social relationships, like the five prototypes: between father and son, husband and wife, prince and subject, elder and youngster, and between friends. Duties are always balanced and if a subject must obey his ruler, he also has to tell him when he is wrong.
Confucius’ teachings have been turned later into a corps de doctrine by his numerous disciples and followers. In the centuries after his death, Mencius and Xun Zi both wrote a prominent book on these, and with time a philosophy has been elaborated, which is known in the West as Confucianism. Although Confucianism is often followed in a religious manner by the Chinese, argument continues over whether to refer to it as a religion because it makes little reference to theological or spiritual matters (Gods and the afterlife).
Confucius’s principles gained wide acceptance primarily because of their basis in common Chinese opinion. He championed strong familial loyalty, ancestor worship, and respect of elders by their children and of husbands by their wives, and used the family as a basis for an ideal government. He expressed the well-known principle, “Do not to others what you do not want done to yourself” (the Golden Rule). He also looked nostalgically upon earlier days, and urged the Chinese, particularly the politicians, to model themselves on earlier examples – although whether or not older rulers had governed by Confucian standards is dubious.
Confucius’ political thought is based upon his ethical thought. He argues that the best government is one that rules through “rites” and people’s natural morality, rather than using bribery and force. He explained this in one of the most important analects:”If the people be led by laws, and uniformity sought to be given them by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame. If they be led by virtue, and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of shame, and moreover will become good.” This “sense of shame” is somewhat an internalization of duty, where the punishment precedes the evil action, instead of following it in the form of laws as in Legalism.
This was built upon by his disciple Mencius to argue that if the king was not acting like a king, he would lose the Mandate of Heaven and be overthrown. Therefore, tyrannicide is justified because a tyrant is more a thief than a king (but attempted tyrannicide is not).
Confucius’ philosophical school was first continued by his direct disciples and by his grandson Zisi. Mencius and Xun Zi are his two great followers, one on each “side” of his philosophy, perhaps simply described as optimism and pessimism. They built upon and expanded his ethico-political system.
Soon after Confucius’ death, Qufu, his hometown, became a place of devotion and remembrance. It is still a major destination for cultural tourism, and many Chinese people visit his grave and the surrounding temples.