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Who was Confucius?

Updated on August 8, 2010

Confucius has had a profound influence on Chinese philosophy, government, and society for over 2,000 years. Although he was not well known during his lifetime, his ideas became the bedrock upon which Chinese leaders, thinkers and every day people built their lives.

Just how long ago did Confucius live? He was born in 551 BC. China had already developed great pieces of literature like The Book of Odes and much of its tradition and culture had already taken shape. Confucius himself said that he did not come up with the ideas that he taught but merely transmitted them from previous generations. As a matter of fact, Confucius may have been trying to bring his society back to a better time, when people got along just perfectly--if such a time did indeed exist!

He was born in the state of Lu, and of a noble family (albeit poor). His father was a military officer and died when he was three. He was mostly brought up by his mother, but she too died when he was young. After marrying when he was 19, Confucius worked in the government of Lu, doing mostly minor work as a bookkeeper. Although he had dreams of becoming a great administrator and reformer, Confucius's talent was more as a teacher and man of wisdom. After determining that he could not help the state of Lu, he gathered disciples and wandered the different states of China to see if he could offer his wisdom. However, he did not have much success finding a leader who would take his teachings and apply them to government. It was in fact Confucius's disciples who would later find success in advising leaders. Some people say that Confucius had a cantankerous personality, and this is why leaders did not want to work with him.

But what were his ideas, and why did he think rulers would be so interested in them? Confucius might be equated with a modern day humanist. He was not deeply religious, nor did he promise great things in the afterlife. His concern was mostly with the everyday world we live in. He believed in the power of the individual to cultivate himself so that he could be both educated and benevolent. He wanted a society where people did not war, but instead respected each other and the roles that they played in society.

The benefits of applying Confucian principles to government is the cultivation of an orderly, peaceful society where "enlightened" people fulfill the roles given to them. However, he did not intend for people to be mere lemmings. Above all, he encouraged study and self-cultivation, whereby individuals acted upon their own principles instead of merely adhering to rules. If you can imagine a society in which this was realized, you would see that it would be very peaceful yet vibrant, and therefore likely to be orderly, efficient, and able to take on any challenge as a harmonious unit. What ruler would not want a state like this! It solves a lot of headaches he would otherwise have, including rebellions, assassination attempts, and an inefficient economy!

One of the key ways Confucius saw people getting along was by practicing benevolence. According to Joseph Cambell, "Confucianism . . regards "benevolence" or jen (ren) as the most effective power for harmonization of life on earth." I don't think any of us can argue with this point. Much like the thinking behind Jesus's teaching to "turn the other cheek" Confucius taught that one should "forget injuries, never forget kindness."

Another way Confucius saw people getting along is by being content with the roles they played in society. I suspect that many modern-day people would find the "roles" he defined as sexist or going against the idea of "individuality." Especially in a western context, these relationships imply obedience regardless of how one is treated. Although personally, I would think that adhering to these principles requires strength, because one endures for the harmony of a family or other societal structure. It is a very eastern concept, which can be found in other asian countries such as Japan.

Here are the five key relationships that Confucius determined to be important:

prince - minister

father - son

husband - wife

elder brother - younger brother

friend - friend

Four of these imply a superior and subordinate position. You will also notice the relationships put the focus on men. In all respects it looks like a "pecking order." But the idea behind these relationships was that people should not be greedy and willfull so as to usurp power or gain more than what they already have. Also, people should be content with who they are. A dog is not a cat, and should not act like a cat.

Read this following quote:

"The superior man does what is proper to the station in which he is; he does not desire to go beyond this. In a position of wealth and honor, he does what is proper to a position of wealth and honor." Instead of trying to go for profit, you would be true to your principles without greed for material gain. In addition, one in a "poor and low position . . does what is proper in a poor and low position."

How do you react to this quote? Perhaps you think that Confucianism implies that there should be no social mobility. It is difficult to argue that this kind of thinking would fly in the West. After all, most western societies advocate individual freedom, and social mobility and equality is encouraged.

However, Confucius was not totally against social mobility. He espoused a merit-based system whereby success would be based on one's abilities. For example, he allowed people of any family background to become his disciple as long as they were intelligent. This became the base for the establishment of China's imperial examination system, where anyone could apply to take the exams to become a government official. It would seem, however, that Confucius put the credentials for high station to be intelligence and cultivation rather than force, wit and craftiness. In other words, the rule is not "win at any cost."

Confucianism is not really a religion (though it does espouse ancestor worship). It is mostly concerned with matters of this world instead of the afterlife. The question is not "how do I attain a great afterlife?" but "how can I attain perfection and harmony with others on earth?" Once could say it is a very noble way to live because it is so selfless.

My impression of Confucius is that he was a great thinker along the lines of the Buddha or Jesus. He observed the world around him, saw chaos and war, and acertained that the only way to create a better world was for people to practice kindness. Of course, the sad fact is that since Confucius died, there were successive periods of war in China, and though many were sure to follow his teachings, many ignored them or attacked them. But the fact this his name is still respected today shows what an influence he had.

By the way, just how respected is he today? Well, can you believe that there are still lineal descendants of Confucius today who hold special positions in the Chinese government?

See below! What a heritage!


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    • ocoonocoon profile image

      ocoonocoon 7 years ago

      Thanks! I do agree that what he says goes against a lot of western thinking, but actually a lot of western thinkers have looked to his teachings, including Thoreau!

    • parrster profile image

      Richard Parr 7 years ago from Oz

      This was very interesting. Although much of what he said fly's in the face of western thinking, his name is still associated with wisdom and good counsel.

      You also write very well.