The Chinese teacher and philosopher; Confusius (551-479 BC) was the founder of the humanistic school of philosophy known as the Ju or Confusianism, which taught the concept of benevolence, ritual, and propriety.
In the 6th century BC China had begun to disintegrate into a loose confederation of city states. The nominal ruler of the China was the King of Chou, who occupied the imperial capital at Loyang in north central China. The Chou had been the supreme ruler of the entire Chinese Empire 500 years earlier, but now they were simply a pawn of the competing Chinese states. This period is generally depicted as a time of great moral decline, when principles and integrity meant little to the official classes.
Confusius, an obscure school teacher, found this situation horrifying, and he attempted to seek a remedy by reviving the great moral teachings of the sages of the past. That he failed is unimportant, for his teachings had a profound influence on later Chinese thought and formed the basis for the dominant Chinese ideology, known as Confusianism.
Traditions and Sources
Confusius is the Latinized name of K’ung Fu-tzu (Great Master K’ung). His original name was K’ung Ch’iu (Kong Qiu), he is also known by the style name of K’ung Chung-ni. After he died, a large number of myths and legends grew up around his name, making difficult an accurate description of the historical Confusius. Traditionally, Confusius was venerated as a Chinese saint, and for along time a critical, objective appraisal of his life was impossible. In more recent times both Chinese and Western scholars have ventured to discard some of the legends and myths and to reconstruct a biography from more reliable sources. As a result, a variety of new images of Confusius have emerged, many of them contradicting each other, and the demythologized picture of Confusius is as confusing as the traditional, mythical one.
The most detailed traditional account of Confusius’ life is contained in the Records of the Historian (Shih chi) by Ssu-ma Ch’ien, who lived 145-86 BC. Many modern scholars have dismissed this biography as a fictionalized, romanticized legend by a Confusian apologist. Nevertheless, in spite of obvious anachronisms, when used with the Annalects (Lun Yu), which purports to record actual conversations between Confusius and his disciples, one can reconstruct a satisfactory outline of the philosopher’s family background, his career, and the role he played in 6th century society.
According to the Records of the Historian, Confusius was a descendant of a branch of the royal house of Shang, the dynasty that ruled China prior to the Chou. His family, the K’ung, had moved to the small state of Lu, located in the modern province of Shantung in northeastern China. There is an early tradition that Confusius’ father at a advance age divorced his first wife because she had borne him only daughters and one disfigured son and married a 15 years old girl from the Yen clan, who gave birth to K’ung Ch’iu. Ssu-ma Ch’ien refers to the relationship as a “wild union”, which very possibly indicates that Confusius was an illegitimate child.
Confusius’ birth date is given in early sources as either 551 or 552, although the former is more commonly accepted. The exact status of his family at the time of his birth is obscured by later attempts to create for him an illustrious lineage. In the Analects, Confusius says that during his youth he was in humble circumstances and forced to acquire many different skills. It is clear that even though the fortunes of his family had declined, fie was no commoner. Confucius unquestionably belonged to the aristocratic class known as the shih. By the time of Confucius most shih served as court officials, scholars, and teachers, and Confucius’ first occupation appears to have been as keeper of the Lu granary and later as supervisor of the fields, both low positions but consistent with his shih status.
We do not know exactly when Confucius embarked on his teaching career, but it does not appear to have been much before the age of 30. In 518 he may have served as tutor to one of the prominent clans of Lu, the Meng, who wished their sons to be educated in the li, or ritual. He is alleged to have journeyed to Loyang that year to instruct himself in the traditional Chou ritual. Here he is said to have met the famous Taoist teacher Lao Tzu, who reportedly bluntly rebuked Confucius for his stuffiness and arrogance. This story is undoubtedly apocryphal and belongs to the corpus of anti Confucian lore circulated by the Taoist school.
The nominal head of state in Lu at this time was a duke (kung), but the actual power lay in the hands of three clans: the Meng, Shu, and Chi. The most powerful of the three in Confucius’ time was the Chi, which was frequently in conflict with the ducal house and the other clans. In 517 Duke Chao of Lu took prisoner the prime minister, Chi P’ing tzu, and was immediately attacked by the other two clans. The duke fled to the neighboring state of Ch’i, Confucius apparently felt a certain loyalty to the duke and fled with him. There are a number of stories about Confucius’ adventures in Ch’i, but most of them appear spurious.
Confucius eventually returned to Lu; one suggested date is 515. For several years after his return he does not appear to have accepted a governmental position and instead spent most of his time studying and teaching. He gathered around him a large number of students. Although we can only guess at the exact curricuIlum of the school, it undoubtedly included instruction in ritual, music, history, and poetry.
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