The Lasting Legacy of Wiseman Confucius
Confucius was a Chinese teacher, editor, politician, and philosopher who lived 2,500 years ago. In his life, he was convinced that his teachings had not made any impact on Chinese society. However, he is now the most remembered person from ancient China and is widely considered one of the most influential teachers in Chinese history.
Confucius was born into extreme poverty, in a cave in 551 BC. This was a time when China was going through a period of disunity. It is a time also known as the Spring and Autumn period, during which the royal authority (under the Zhou Dynasty) was waning. Although the office of the king of Zhou still existed, it had only nominal power and its function reduced to mainly those pertaining to rituals and ceremonies.
China was fragmented into several principalities, and it was in the hands of its rulers that real power was to be found. The states were often at war with each other, and it was within this chaotic environment that Confucianism would develop and influence pretty much the rest of Chinese history.
Confucius was born in 551 BC in the state of Lu (near the modern city of Qufu, in Shandong Province). Confucius’ given name, which is often avoided out of respect for him, was Kong Qiu. According to the ancient Chinese historian, Sima Qian, prior to Confucius’ birth, his parents had prayed for a child on a sacred hill (丘) called Ni. As their prayers were answered, they name their child after the sacred hill. Confucius is also known commonly as Kong Zi, meaning Master Kong, and by his honorific name, Kong Fuzi, which means ‘Grand Master Kong’. It has been suggested that Confucius is a Latinized version of Kong Fuzi, and was first coined by Jesuit missionaries who visited China during the Ming Dynasty.
Temple and Cemetery of Confucius and the Kong Family Mansion in Qufu ( CC BY 2.0 )
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Confucius was born into the shi class, which may be said to be equivalent to that of a retainer or knight in the medieval European social hierarchy. One of the functions of this class was to govern territory as vassals of a king.
During the Spring and Autumn period, however, the rulers of the various states began to rely on appointed administrators to perform this function. Although this would have made the shi class obsolete, they possessed knowledge of aristocratic tradition. It was this that ensured their survival during that period, as kings who sought to emulate the imperial court of the Zhou Dynasty had to rely on this class for their knowledge of ritual and ceremony.
Ancient Sources on Confucius
Much of what we know about Confucius’ early life is derived from ancient Chinese sources as well as tradition. For instance, Sima Qian wrote that whilst Confucius was a child, he often entertained himself by arranging ritual vessels and staging ceremonies.
As for Confucius’ education, it is traditionally claimed that, amongst other things, he studied ritual under a Taoist master, and music under a person by the name of Chang Hong. By the time he was middle aged, Confucius was already teaching others. According to Sima Qian, Confucius had as many as 3,000 disciples. Other ancient sources, however, claimed that Confucius had either 70 or 72 students.
Famous Confucian Statue of the Ashikaga Gakko. ( Public Domain )
Confucius’ philosophy covered a wide range of topics, including ethics, politics and education. Confucius’ Lunyu, translated into English as Analects, is arguably his most famous work. This work contains Confucius’ teachings and his conversations with his disciples. This piece of writing achieved its present form around the 2nd century BC. The values taught by Confucius include compassion, self-cultivation, loyalty towards one’s superiors, and filial piety.
The Analects of Confucius. ( Public Domain )
The philosophy of Confucius dominated much of Chinese history, despite the fact that there were periods when it was attacked by those in power. During the Qin Dynasty, for example, it was Legalism that was the philosophy preferred by Qin Shi Huang. Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution may be said to be another example of opposition towards Confucianism in more modern times.
In spite of such attacks on Confucianism, this philosophy has proved its resilience, and still remains influential amongst the Chinese.