The Enduring Legacy of Confucius: 10 Insights into the World's Most Influential Thinker
Confucius, the great Chinese philosopher, teacher, and political figure, is one of the most influential thinkers in human history. Born in 551 BC in the state of Lu, Confucius's teachings and ideas have had a profound impact on Chinese culture and society and continue to inspire and influence people around the world to this day. He emphasized the importance of ethical behavior, education, and social harmony, and encouraged his followers to become better people through lifelong learning and personal development. Despite facing many challenges and setbacks during his lifetime, Confucius's legacy as a philosopher and teacher remains an important part of human history and culture. Here are ten insights into the mind of one of history’s greatest thinkers.
1.He Has an Origin Story
All great heroes need an origin story. Confucius is no different. Confucius was born in 551 BC to Kong He, a 60-year-old military commander, and Yan Zhengzai, a 17-year-old from a local noble family. Kong’s first wife had produced nine daughters but no male heirs, so Kong decided to try marrying a younger woman in the hopes she would provide him with one.
He approached one of his neighbors who had several adolescent daughters but none of the girls wanted to marry an “old man.” In the end, the father had to choose, so he chose Yan Zhengzai. Shortly after the wedding, the couple headed to a sacred mountain in the hopes that such a holy place would aid in the conception of a healthy baby boy. It worked.
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Chinese mythical being predicted the birth of Confucius. (Megaloceros-Urhirsch)
Yet the most interesting part of the great philosopher’s origin story is the legend that goes with it. Supposedly, while Yan was pregnant, she was visited by a qilin, a mythical being with the head of a dragon, and the body of a deer but the scales of a snake. The qilin showed her a jade tablet that predicted Yan’s unborn son would become a great man and renowned sage. And that he did.
2.Confucius Wasn’t His Real Name
It’s not uncommon for famous people to change their names. Confucius did the same. During the period Confucius lived in, custom dictated that someone's “personal” name was only used by their family elders.
It’s believed that Confucius’s personal name was Kǒng Qiū (Zi). The Zi part stood for his family lineage, while Kong stood for a certain part of the family. His family elders would have called him this and his contemporaries would have called him Zhòngní. Those below him, like his students, referred to him as Zi. Confusingly, this doesn’t relate to his surname but instead translates as master.
Over the years, Confucius was also given many other names and titles such as “Laudably Declarable Lord Ni,” “Extremely Sage Departed Teacher” and “The Great Sage.” So where does the name Confucius come from? It’s a Latinization of his title Kong Fuzi (Grand Master Kong) which was made popular by the Jesuit missionaries who visited China many centuries later.
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3.He Started Teaching Aged 24
Confucius started teaching at a relatively early age. He began teaching in 527 BC at the tender age of 24. He stated that his primary goal was to bring about change in the corrupt and lawless government he lived under by teaching the next generation. Which, to be fair, sounds like what most idealistic young people would say.
To Confucius, a teacher’s primary duty was to mold his young students into morally upstanding people. No matter how much someone paid as a fee, he provided instructions to all of his students equally. Rather than his fee, what he cared about was that all his students demonstrate the same ability and desire to improve.
Confucius believed that it was his job to pass down to his students values from earlier times that he felt had been forgotten. As such, his school of philosophy emphasized morality, both personal and governmental, and the propriety of interpersonal interactions.
Confucius, depicted here in conversation with a little boy. His ideas have influenced cultures all over the world. His disciples organized his teachings into the Analects (Rijksmuseum / CC0)
4.He Did Lots of Small Jobs as a Young Man
Confucius was born into a strange middle ground of social class. He was born below the ruling elite but above most commoners. This meant he couldn’t afford a life of luxury or higher education, but he was also far above manual labor.
Most people of his class, the shi, became either court officials or worked white-collar jobs as scholars and teachers. Unfortunately for Confucius, his father died when he was only three years old. He was raised by his mother, who as a widow and had very little money. Confucius thus had a humble upbringing. He married his wife, Qiguan, when he was 19 and had a son and two daughters. To support his family, he worked a whole host of minor jobs, including working as a bookkeeper, a laborer, a shepherd, a cowherd, and a clerk. These jobs would go on to shape his outlook on life and teachings.
5.His Teachings Form the Analects
Confucius’s school grew quickly, soon drawing in up to 3000 students. It was through his school that his reputation as a wise and talented philosopher began. Over time one of his students, Tsekung Te Zeng, wrote down his master’s teachings, and The Analects was born.
It’s believed that Confucius wrote many books over his lifetime but today the Analects is the only book directly connected to him. It’s an important collection of his teachings, originally written in classic Chinese.
Perhaps the most famous text within the book is the “ Three Obediences” which teaches how the young should submit to their parents, superiors, and society in general. The text represents the general teaching of Confucianism that human beings can only do their best and cannot forcefully change the world, or their fates. As such it is our duty to try our best and leave the rest up to the heavens.
The Analects has been one of the most widely read books in China for thousands of years. Today it is commonly referred to as the “Chinese Bible”.
The Analects of Confucius. (Public Domain)
6.He Was a Master of the “Six Arts”
As far as we know, Confucius never received what we would call today a “higher education”. He was, however, a master of the “Six Arts”.
During the reign of the Zhou Dynasty of Ancient China (1122 to 256 BC), every man of class was meant to be a master of “liù yì”, the six arts. These arts were archery, mathematics, music, calligraphy, charioting, and ritual. Confucius was a master of all six and integrated them into his philosophy.
Confucius’s teachings highlighted the importance of the old, traditional ways. As such, alongside traditional scholarship, his students had to practice the six arts. In doing, so he hoped to reinforce the traditional values of benevolence, propriety, and ritual in Chinese society.
7.Confucius was Defined by Two Characteristics
Of course, as a highly respected historical figure and philosopher, a whole host of positive attributes and characteristics have been attributed to Confucius. This being said, he is most widely associated with two, his “humaneness” and his “moderation”.
In Confucius’s mind, humaneness was the one universal trait that every person should have. His definition of humanness included the virtues of honesty, compassion, and decency and he taught that how far a man went in life depended on how much he embraced these values.
The second trait he was known for was moderation. A major part of his philosophy was moderation in all things. Everything should be balanced, not too much or too little. This meant balancing one's emotions and actions and refraining from indulging in excess. In doing so one lived with “Li”, which denoted living a balanced life full of moderation and harmony.
This approach to moderation even included humaneness. He believed being overly honest or polite would make a person a laughingstock. As such it was best to use these two virtues in a complementary fashion. For example, if someone is lying to you, it is best to be polite, rather than honest, in case you offend the liar. On the flip side, if you are honest, there is no need to be polite, unless you feel like it. No wonder he also had a reputation for confusing his students.
8.He Was All About Family
Many of Confucius’s teachings emphasize the importance of family and he taught that it was only within the family that an individual could be fully defined and developed. This largely reflected his obsession with the old traditions and what he saw as moral decay in his contemporary China.
Familial obligations and relationships were key to his philosophy. To Confucius, it was a husband’s duty to love and cherish his wife and in return, it was her duty to obey her husband. Likewise, it is the duty of the children to obey and respect their parents as well as the duty of the younger members of any family to respect their elders.
The Confucian Classic of Filial Piety is based on the virtue of respect for one's parents, elders, and ancestors and about how to set up a good society using the principle of filial piety. (Public Domain)
Confucius believed that a breakdown in these traditional values would lead to larger societal change, and the state of family life had consequences for public life. As such a house that was in good order produced a society that was in good order.
This led to the tradition of visiting one's family during the Chinese New Year being inspired by Confucius’s teachings. Every year Chinese people travel to be with their loved ones during the Lunar New Year and reflect on their roots and look forward to spending the next year as a family. This all has roots in Confucius’s teachings.
9.He Became a Great Politician
As a man respected for his knowledge and strong moral standing, it should come as no surprise that Confucius eventually entered the world of politics. Or depending on how jaded one is, it might be a surprise.
The time during which Confucius lived was plagued by political turmoil. His home state, Lu, was ruled over by a kind of duke called Lord Ding. Under him were three aristocratic families, the Ji, Shu, and Meng, and the members of these families all held the most important bureaucratic and political positions. Politics was fiercely competitive with people doing anything to succeed and self-promote. This led to a lack of morality in the system overall which caused massive corruption and countless problems.
Around 500 BC, at the age of 50, Confucius’s reputation had reached such a level that he was invited to join politics to try and put an end to all the corruption. He began his political career as a magistrate, then as an assistant minister, before rising to the lofty title of minister of crime in the state of Lu. In this position, he brought in radical new rules that were aimed at bringing an end to rampant corruption and nepotism. Unfortunately, they were ignored.
10.He Went Into Self-Imposed Exile
Not long after he had entered politics, Confucius left, going into a 13–14-year self-imposed exile. There are varying explanations for why he left his lofty position to live life on the road but the two strongest are that he either felt the need to spread his teachings far and wide personally, or had quickly become disillusioned with politics after failing to root out his government's moral decay and rampant corruption.
From around 496 BC, he and a band of his followers traveled China’s war-torn states, approaching various rulers in the hope they would adopt his teachings. He primarily hopped between 8 different states, spending weeks in some and years in others.
Confucius among his pupils. (Public Domain)
During this exile, he and his students faced many dangers. While most leaders treated him with respect, the roads were dangerous places. Confucius’s band often faced the threat of kidnapping for ransom and violence at the hands of wayward bandits. They also often got lost, one time getting so lost they had no food for seven days. During this time Confucius continued to work on his philosophy. His trials during his exile led him to develop the idea of the “morally superior man.” A man of righteousness known as “The Exemplary Man”.
Confucius returned to his home state of Lu as a 68-year-old. He spent his final years once again trying to save his home, advising government officials, continuing to teach his disciples, and working on various texts he hoped would spread his teachings.
His impact on modern-day China and global philosophy as a whole was massive. His teachings emphasized the importance of ethical behavior, education, and social harmony, and have had a profound impact on Chinese culture and society. Today, his ideas continue to inspire and influence people around the world, and his legacy as a philosopher and teacher remains an important part of human history and culture.
Top image: Statue of Confucius at Temple in Shanghai, China. Source: philipus/Adobe Stock
Chin, A. 2023. Confucius. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Confucius
Editors. 2020. Confucius. Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/confucius/
Rattini, K. 2019. Who was Confucius? Available at https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/confucius