A portrait of Confucius, by Tang Dynasty artist Wu Daozi (680–740).
Full name Confucius
Born 28 September 551 BC
Qufu, Zhou Dynasty
Died 479 BC (aged 71–72)
Qufu, Zhou Dynasty
Era Ancient philosophy Region Eastern philosophy School Founder of Confucianism Main interests Moral philosophy, Social philosophy, Ethics Notable ideas Confucianism
Confucius (Chinese: 孔子; pinyin: Kǒng Zǐ; Wade–Giles: K'ung-tzu, or Chinese: 孔夫子; pinyin: Kǒng Fūzǐ; Wade–Giles: K'ung-fu-tzu), literally "Master Kong", (traditionally 28 September 551 BC – 479 BC) was a Chinese thinker and social philosopher of the Spring and Autumn Period.
The philosophy of Confucius emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity. These values gained prominence in China over other doctrines, such as Legalism (法家) or Taoism (道家) during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 220). Confucius' thoughts have been developed into a system of philosophy known as Confucianism (儒家).
Because no texts are demonstrably authored by Confucius, and the ideas most closely associated with him were elaborated in writings that accumulated over the period between his death and the foundation of the first Chinese empire in 221 BC, many scholars are very cautious about attributing specific assertions to Confucius himself. His teachings may be found in the Analects of Confucius (論語), a collection of aphorisms, which was compiled many years after his death. For nearly 2,000 years he was thought to be the editor or author of all the Five Classics (五經) such as the Classic of Rites (禮記) (editor), and the Spring and Autumn Annals (春秋) (author).
Confucius' principles had a basis in common Chinese tradition and belief. He championed strong familial loyalty, ancestor worship, respect of elders by their children (and, according to later interpreters, of husbands by their wives), and the family as a basis for an ideal government. He expressed the well-known principle, "Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself", one of the earlier versions of the Golden Rule.
Personal life and family
According to tradition, Confucius was born in 551 B.C., in the Spring and Autumn Period, at the beginning of the Hundred Schools of Thought philosophical movement. Confucius was born in or near the city of Qufu (曲阜), in the Chinese State of Lu (魯) (now part of Shandong Province). Early accounts say that he was born into a poor but noble family that had fallen on hard times.
Confucius was from a warrior family. His father Shulianghe (叔梁紇) had military exploits in two battles and owned a fiefdom. The Records of the Grand Historian (史記), compiled some four centuries later, states that Confucius was born as a result of a yehe (野合), or "illicit union".
His father died when Confucius was three years old, and he was brought up in poverty by his mother. His social ascendancy linked him to the growing class of shì (士), a class whose status lay between that of the old nobility and the common people, that comprised men who sought social positions on the basis of talents and skills, rather than heredity. As a child, Confucius was said to have enjoyed putting ritual vases on the sacrifice table. He married a young girl named Qi Guan (亓官) at 19 and she gave birth to their first child, Kong Li, (孔鯉) when he was 20. Confucius is reported to have worked as a shepherd, cowherd, clerk, and a book-keeper. His mother died when Confucius was 23, and he entered three years of mourning for the loss of his mother.
Confucius is said to have risen to the position of Justice Minister (大司寇) in Lu at the age of 53. According to the Records of the Grand Historian, the neighboring state of Qi (齊) was worried that Lu was becoming too powerful. Qi decided to sabotage Lu's reforms by sending 100 good horses and 80 beautiful dancing girls to the Duke of Lu. The Duke indulged himself in pleasure and did not attend to official duties for three days. Confucius was deeply disappointed and resolved to leave Lu and seek better opportunities, yet to leave at once would expose the misbehavior of the Duke and therefore bring public humiliation to the ruler Confucius was serving, so Confucius waited for the Duke to make a lesser mistake. Soon after, the Duke neglected to send to Confucius a portion of the sacrificial meat that was his due according to custom, and Confucius seized this pretext to leave both his post and the state of Lu.
According to tradition, after Confucius's resignation, he began a long journey (or set of journeys) around the small kingdoms of northeast and central China, including the states of Wei (衞), Song (宋), Chen (陳) and Cai (蔡). At the courts of these states, he expounded his political beliefs but did not see them implemented.
According to the Zuo Commentary to the Spring and Autumn Annals, Confucius returned home when he was 68. The Analects depict him spending his last years teaching disciples and transmitting the old wisdom via a set of texts called the Five Classics.
Kong Qiu (孔丘 Kǒng Qiū), as Confucius is commonly known, is a combination of his surname (孔) and his given name (丘), and he was also known as Zhong Ni (仲尼 Zhòngní), which is his courtesy name.
The name "Confucius" was first Latinised and introduced to Europe by the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci. Other forms of Romanisations are Kǒng Fūzǐ (or Kǒng fū zǐ) in pinyin, and K'ung fu-tzu in Wade-Giles (or, less accurately, Kung fu-tze).
Fūzǐ means teacher. So since it was disrespectful to call the teacher by name according to Chinese culture, he is known as just "Master Kong", or Confucius, even in modern days. The character 'fu' is optional; in modern Chinese he is more often called Kǒng Zi (孔子).
In 1 C.E. (first year of the Yuanshi Era of the Han Dynasty), he was given his first posthumous name: 褒成宣尼公, Lord Bāochéngxūanni, which means "Laudably Declarable Lord Ni." His most popular posthumous names are 至聖先師, Zhìshèngxiānshī, lit. "The Most Sage Venerated Late Teacher" (comes from 1530, the ninth year of the Jiajing period of the Ming Dynasty); 至聖, Zhìshèng, "the Greatest Sage"; 先師, Xiānshī, literally meaning "first teacher". It has been suggested that '先師' can be used, however, to express something like, "the Teacher who assists the wise to their attainment". He is also commonly known as 萬世師表，Wànshìshībiǎo, "Role Model for Teachers through the Ages".
Although Confucianism is often followed in a religious manner by the Chinese, arguments continue over whether it is a religion. Confucianism discusses elements of the afterlife and views concerning tian (Heaven), but it is relatively unconcerned with some spiritual matters often considered essential to religious thought, such as the nature of the soul.
In the Analects (論語), 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 (詩經).
One of the deepest teachings of Confucius may have been the superiority of personal exemplification over explicit rules of behavior. His moral teachings emphasized self-cultivation, emulation of moral exemplars, and the attainment of skilled judgment rather than knowledge of rules, Confucius's ethics may be considered a type of virtue ethics. His teachings rarely rely on reasoned argument, and ethical ideals and methods are conveyed more indirectly, through allusions, innuendo, and even tautology. This is why his teachings need to be examined and put into proper context in order to be understood. A good example is found in this famous anecdote:
The passage conveys the lesson that by not asking about the horses, Confucius demonstrated that a sage values human beings over property; readers of this lesson are led to reflect on whether their response would follow Confucius's, and to pursue ethical self-improvement if it would not. Confucius, an exemplar of human excellence, serves as the ultimate model, rather than a deity or a universally true set of abstract principles. For these reasons, according to many Eastern and Western commentators, Confucius's teaching may be considered a Chinese example of humanism.
One of his most famous teaching was the Golden Rule (in the positive form) and Silver Rule (in the negative form):
- "What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others."
- Zi gong (a disciple of Confucius) asked: "Is there any one word that could guide a person throughout life?"
The Master replied: "How about 'shu' [reciprocity]: never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself?"
- Analects XV.24, tr. David Hinton
Although the above rules are in some way universal, Confucius would be called an ethical particularist because of how he interprets these rules. Confucius believes that there is a duty to family and friends before there is a duty to community. Therefore, in different situations Confucius would counsel a person to do different things.
Often overlooked in Confucian ethics are the virtues to the self, namely sincerity and the cultivation of knowledge. Virtuous action towards others begins with virtuous and sincere thought, which begins with knowledge. A virtuous disposition without knowledge is susceptible to corruption and virtuous action without sincerity is not true righteousness. Cultivating knowledge and sincerity is also important for one's own sake; the superior person loves learning for the sake of learning and righteousness for the sake of righteousness.
Lǐ, yì and rén
The Confucian theory of ethics as exemplified in Lǐ (禮) is based on three important conceptual aspects of life: ceremonies associated with sacrifice to ancestors and deities of various types, social and political institutions, and the etiquette of daily behavior. It was believed by some that lǐ originated from the heavens, but Confucius stressed the development of lǐ through the actions of sage leaders in human history. His discussions of lǐ seem to redefine the term to refer to all actions committed by a person to build the ideal society, rather than those simply conforming with canonical standards of ceremony.
In the early Confucian tradition, lǐ was doing the proper thing at the proper time, balancing between maintaining existing norms to perpetuate an ethical social fabric, and violating them in order to accomplish ethical good. Training in the lǐ of past sages cultivates in people virtues that include ethical judgment about when lǐ must be adapted in light of situational contexts.
In early Confucianism, the concept of li is closely related to yì (義), which is based upon the idea of reciprocity. Yì can be translated as righteousness, though it may simply mean what is ethically best to do in a certain context. The term contrasts with action done out of self-interest. While pursuing one's own self-interest is not necessarily bad, one would be a better, more righteous person if one's life was based upon following a path designed to enhance the greater good. Thus an outcome of yì is doing the right thing for the right reason.
Just as action according to Lǐ should be adapted to conform to the aspiration of adhering to yì, so yì is linked to the core value of rén (仁).Rén consists of 5 basic virtues: seriousness, generosity, sincerity, diligence and kindness.  Rén is the virtue of perfectly fulfilling one's responsibilities toward others, most often translated as "benevolence" or "humaneness"; translator Arthur Waley calls it "Goodness" (with a capital G), and other translations that have been put forth include "authoritativeness" and "selflessness." Confucius's moral system was based upon empathy and understanding others, rather than divinely ordained rules. To develop one's spontaneous responses of rén so that these could guide action intuitively was even better than living by the rules of yì. Confucius asserts that virtue is a means between extremes. For example, the properly generous person gives the right amount—not too much and not too little. 
To cultivate one's attentiveness to rén one used another Confucian version of the Golden Rule: "What one does not wish for oneself, one ought not to do to anyone else; what one recognises as desirable for oneself, one ought to be willing to grant to others." (Confucius and Confucianism, Richard Wilhelm) Virtue, in this Confucian view, is based upon harmony with other people, produced through this type of ethical practice by a growing identification of the interests of self and other.
Confucius' political thought is based upon his ethical thought. He argues that the best government is one that rules through "rites" (lǐ) and people's natural morality, rather than by using bribery and coercion. He explained that this is 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 the shame, and moreover will become good." (Translated by James Legge) in the Great Learning (大學). This "sense of shame" is an internalisation of duty, where the punishment precedes the evil action, instead of following it in the form of laws as in Legalism.
Confucius looked nostalgically upon earlier days, and urged the Chinese, particularly those with political power, to model themselves on earlier examples. In times of division, chaos, and endless wars between feudal states, he wanted to restore the Mandate of Heaven (天命) that could unify the "world" (天下, "all under Heaven") and bestow peace and prosperity on the people. Because his vision of personal and social perfections was framed as a revival of the ordered society of earlier times, Confucius is often considered a great proponent of conservatism, but a closer look at what he proposes often shows that he used (and perhaps twisted) past institutions and rites to push a new political agenda of his own: a revival of a unified royal state, whose rulers would succeed to power on the basis of their moral merits instead of lineage. These would be rulers devoted to their people, striving for personal and social perfection, and such a ruler would spread his own virtues to the people instead of imposing proper behavior with laws and rules.
While he supported the idea of government by an all-powerful sage, ruling as an Emperor, his ideas contained a number of elements to limit the power of rulers. He argued for according language with truth, and honesty was of paramount importance. Even in facial expression, truth must always be represented. Confucius believed that if a ruler were to lead correctly, by action, that orders would be deemed unnecessary in that others will follow the proper actions of their ruler. In discussing the relationship between a king and his subject (or a father and his son), he underlined the need to give due respect to superiors. This demanded that the inferior must give advice to his superior if the superior was considered to be taking the course of action that was wrong. Confucius believed in ruling by example, if you lead correctly, orders are unnecessary and useless.
Disciples and legacy
Confucius's teachings were later turned into an elaborate set of rules and practices by his numerous disciples and followers, who organized his teachings into the Analects. Confucius' disciples and his only grandson, Zisi, continued his philosophical school after his death. These efforts spread Confucian ideals to students who then became officials in many of the royal courts in China, thereby giving Confucianism the first wide-scale test of its dogma.
Two of Confucius's most famous later followers emphasized radically different aspects of his teachings. In the centuries after his death, Mencius (孟子) and Xun Zi (荀子) both composed important teachings elaborating in different ways on the fundamental ideas associated with Confucius. Mencius (4th century BC) articulated the innate goodness in human beings as a source of the ethical intuitions that guide people towards rén, yì, and lǐ, while Xun Zi (3rd century BC) underscored the realistic and materialistic aspects of Confucian thought, stressing that morality was inculcated in society through tradition and in individuals through training. In time, their writings, together with the Analects and other core texts came to constitute the philosophical corpus of Confucianism.
This realignment in Confucian thought was parallel to the development of Legalism, which saw filial piety as self-interest and not a useful tool for a ruler to create an effective state. A disagreement between these two political philosophies came to a head in 223 BC when the Qin state conquered all of China. Li Ssu, Prime Minister of the Qin Dynasty convinced Qin Shi Huang to abandon the Confucians' recommendation of awarding fiefs akin to the Zhou Dynasty before them which he saw as counter to the Legalist idea of centralizing the state around the ruler. When the Confucian advisers pressed their point, Li Ssu had many Confucian scholars killed and their books burned—considered a huge blow to the philosophy and Chinese scholarship.
Under the succeeding Han Dynasty and Tang Dynasty, Confucian ideas gained even more widespread prominence. Under Wudi, the works of Confucius were made the official imperial philosophy and required reading for civil service examinations in 140 BC which was continued nearly unbroken until the end of the 19th Century. As Moism lost support by the time of the Han, the main philosophical contenders were Legalism, which Confucian thought somewhat absorbed, the teachings of Lao-tzu, whose focus on more mystic ideas kept it from direct conflict with Confucianism, and the new Buddhist religion, which gained acceptance during the Southern and Northern Dynasties era. Both Confucian ideas and Confucian-trained officials were relied upon in the Ming Dynasty and even the Yuan Dynasty, although Kublai Khan distrusted handing over provincial control.
During the Song Dynasty, the scholar Zhu Xi (AD 1130–1200) added ideas from Daoism and Buddhism into Confucianism. In his life, Zhu Xi was largely ignored, but not long after his death his ideas became the new orthodox view of what Confucian texts actually meant. Modern historians view Zhu Xi as having created something rather different, and call his way of thinking Neo-Confucianism. Neo-Confucianism held sway in China, Korea, and Vietnam until the 19th century.
The works of Confucius were translated into European languages through the agency of Jesuit scholars stationed in China. Matteo Ricci started to report on the thoughts of Confucius, and father Prospero Intorcetta published the life and works of Confucius into Latin in 1687. It is thought that such works had considerable importance on European thinkers of the period, particularly among the Deists and other philosophical groups of the Enlightenment who were interested by the integration of the system of morality of Confucius into Western civilization.
In the modern era Confucian movements, such as New Confucianism, still exist but during the Cultural Revolution, Confucianism was frequently attacked by leading figures in the Communist Party of China. This was partially a continuation of the condemnations of Confucianism by intellectuals and activists in the early 20th Century as a cause of the ethnocentric close-mindedness and refusal of the Qing Dynasty to modernize that led to the tragedies that befell China in the 19th Century.
Confucius's works are studied by scholars in many other Asian countries, particularly those in the Sinosphere, such as Korea, Japan and Vietnam. Many of those countries still hold the traditional memorial ceremony every year.
In modern times, Asteroid 7853, "Confucius", was named after the Chinese thinker.
No contemporary painting or sculpture of Confucius survives, and it was only during the Han Dynasty that he was portrayed visually. Carvings often depict his legendary meeting with Laozi. Since that time there have been many portraits of Confucius as the ideal philosopher.
In former times, it was customary to have a portrait in Confucius Temples; however, during the reign of Hongwu Emperor (Taizu) of the Ming dynasty it was decided that the only proper portrait of Confucius should be in the temple in his hometown, Qufu. In other temples Confucius is represented by a memorial tablet. In 2006, the China Confucius Foundation commissioned a standard portrait of Confucius based on the Tang dynasty portrait by Wu Daozi.
Death and legacy
Burdened by the loss of both his son and his favourite disciples, he died at the age of 72 or 73. Confucius was buried in Kong Lin cemetery which lies in the historical part of Qufu. The original tomb erected there in memory of Confucius on the bank of the Sishui River had the shape of an axe. In addition, it has a raised brick platform at the front of the memorial for offerings such as sandalwood incense and fruit.
Memorials of Confucius
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 people visit his grave and the surrounding temples. In pan-China cultures, there are many temples where representations of the Buddha, Laozi and Confucius are found together. There are also many temples dedicated to him, which have been used for Confucianist ceremonies.
The Chinese have a tradition of holding spectacular memorial ceremonies of Confucius (祭孔) every year, using ceremonies that supposedly derived from Zhou Li (周禮) as recorded by Confucius, on the date of Confucius' birth. This tradition was interrupted for several decades in mainland China, where the official stance of the Communist Party and the State was that Confucius and Confucianism represented reactionary feudalist beliefs which held that the subservience of the people to the aristocracy is a part of the natural order. All such ceremonies and rites were therefore banned. Only after the 1990s, did the ceremony resume. As it is now considered a veneration of Chinese history and tradition, even Communist Party members may be found in attendance.
In Taiwan, where the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) strongly promoted Confucian beliefs in ethics and behavior, the tradition of the memorial ceremony of Confucius (祭孔) is supported by the government and has continued without interruption. While not a national holiday, it does appear on all printed calendars, much as Father's Day does in the West.
Confucius' descendants were repeatedly identified and honored by successive imperial governments with titles of nobility and official posts. They were honored with the rank of a marquis thirty-five times since Gaozu of the Han Dynasty, and they were promoted to the rank of duke forty-two times from the Tang Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty. Emperor Xuanzong of Tang first bestowed the title of "Duke Wenxuan" on Kong Suizhi of the 35th generation. In 1055, Emperor Renzong of Song first bestowed the title of "Duke Yansheng" on Kong Zongyuan of the 46th generation.
Despite repeated dynastic change in China, the title of Duke Yansheng was bestowed upon successive generations of descendants until it was abolished by the Nationalist Government in 1935. The last holder of the title, Kung Te-cheng of the 77th generation, was appointed Sacrificial Official to Confucius. Kung Te-cheng was offered the position of puppet Emperor of China in 1937 by the Japanese, but Kung declined the offer. Te-cheng died in October 2008, and his son, Kung Wei-yi, the 78th lineal descendant, had died in 1989. Kung Te-cheng's grandson, Kung Tsui-chang, the 79th lineal descendant, was born in 1975; his great-grandson, Kung Yu-jen, the 80th lineal descendant, was born in Taipei on January 1, 2006. Te-cheng's sister, Kong Demao, lives in mainland China and has written a book about her experiences growing up at the family estate in Qufu. Another sister, Kong Deqi, died as a young woman.
Confucius's family, the Kongs, has the longest recorded extant pedigree in the world today. The father-to-son family tree, now in its 83rd generation, has been recorded since the death of Confucius. According to the Confucius Genealogy Compilation Committee, he has 2 million known and registered descendants, and there are an estimated 3 million in all. Of these, several tens of thousands live outside of China. In the 14th century, a Kong descendant went to Korea, where an estimated 34,000 descendants of Confucius live today. One of the main lineages fled from the Kong ancestral home in Qufu during the Chinese Civil War in the 1940s, and eventually settled in Taiwan.
Because of the huge interest in the Confucius family tree, there was a project in China to test the DNA of known family members. Among other things, this would allow scientists to identify a common Y chromosome in male descendants of Confucius. If the descent were truly unbroken, father-to-son, since Confucius's lifetime, the males in the family would all have the same Y chromosome as their direct male ancestor, with slight mutations due to the passage of time. However, in 2009, the family authorities decided not to agree to DNA testing. Bryan Sykes, professor of genetics at Oxford University, understands this decision: "The Confucius family tree has an enormous cultural significance," he said. "It's not just a scientific question." The DNA testing was originally proposed to add new members, many of whose family record books were lost during 20th-century upheavals, to the Confucian family tree.
The fifth and most recent edition of the Confucius genealogy was printed by the Confucius Genealogy Compilation Committee (CGCC). It was unveiled in a ceremony at Qufu on September 24, 2009. Women are now included for the first time.
Note that this only deals with those whose lines of descent are documented historically. Using mathematical models, it is easy to demonstrate that people living today have a much more common ancestry than commonly assumed, so it is likely that many more have Confucius as an ancestor.
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- Confucius Institute
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- Creel, Herrlee Glessner (1949). Confucius and the Chinese Way. New York: Harper.
- Creel, Herrlee Glessner (1953). Chinese Thought from Confucius to Mao Tse-tung. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2005). "Confucianism: An Overview". In Encyclopedia of Religion (Vol. C, pp 1890–1905). Detroit: MacMillan Reference USA.
- Dawson, Raymond (1982). Confucius. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0192875361.
- Dollinger, Marc J. (1996). "Confucian Ethics and Japanese Management Practices," in Sterling Harwood, ed., Business as Ethical and Business as Usual Boston: Jones & Bartlett.
- Fingarette, Hebert (1998). Confucius : the secular as sacred. Long Grove, Ill.: Waveland Press. ISBN 1577660102.
- Mengzi (2006). Mengzi. Translation by B.W. Van Norden. In Philip J. Ivanhoe & B.W. Van Norden, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy. 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing. ISBN 0-87220-780-3.
- Ssu-ma Ch'ien (1974). Records of the Historian. Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang, trans. Hong Kong: Commercial Press.
- Van Norden, B.W., ed. (2001). Confucius and the Analects: New Essays. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-513396-X.
- Vidal, Gore (1981). Creation. New York: Random House. ISBN 0-394-50015-6. Confucius appears as one of the main characters in this novel, which gives a very sympathetic and human portrait of him and his times.
- Confucius on In Our Time at the BBC. (listen now)
- Multilingual web site on Confucius and the Analects
- Confucius entry by Jeffrey Riegel in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Works by Confucius at Project Gutenberg
- Confucian Analects (Project Gutenberg release of James Legge's Translation)
- Biography of Confucius and His Influence on China
- French translation by Edouard Chavannes of Sima Qian's biography of Confucius (see pp.283-435) in the Records of the Grand Historian
- Familiar Discourses (Jia yu,家語), containing traditions about Confucius' early life
- New modern and detailed TV series about Confucius made by CCTV
- Core philosophical passages in the Analects of Confucius.
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