Confucius (551-479 BCE), whose name is transliterated from “Kong Fuzi” and literally means “Master Kong,” was a renowned ancient Chinese philosopher, devoted educator, and erudite scholar whose ideas and teachings had profound influence on Asian cultures. It is believed that there are six million Confucians in the world. A lifelong resident of present-day Shandong Province of China, Confucius lived a somewhat uneventful and ordinary life. His philosophy strongly emphasized that a person should cultivate and implement correct morality and human relationships. Confucius accepted people from all backgrounds as students, the most famous ones being called the “Seventy-Two Disciples.” His thought has subsequently been developed into a system of Chinese philosophy known as Confucianism.
It was said that Confucius was born into a deposed noble family in the state of Lu (Shandong), at a time when imperial rule was breaking down. The Zhou Dynasty (1122-256 BCE) had divided China into twelve rival kingdoms. Unable to cope with these internal struggles, Confucius’s ancestors fled to Lu. Confucius was born there when his father was seventy and his mother fifteen. His father was a commander of defending troops whereas his mother was a commoner. Some documents indicate that Confucius was conceived out of wedlock and lived as an orphan in genteel poverty. He inherited his father’s imposing physique and his mother’s love of argument.
According to his career profile, Confucius served as manager, scholar, editor, statesman, and teacher. In his formative years, he was employed as a manager in grain warehouses, where he demonstrated enthusiasm in religious ceremonies and ritual. He continued his scholarly pursuits in ritual and music, and soon became a polymath. Confucius recruited students from diverse backgrounds, instructing them in Chinese classics. He adopted the methods of deduction and argument in teaching. In his middle years, he began the task of editing classics, including The topic of Songs and The Topic of Rites, among others. He was promoted to Minister of Justice in later years. Failing to press for full political reforms in Lu, he resigned and devoted his later life to teaching.
One of the central tenets of Confucian teachings is ren (love). This tenet applies to oneself, others, and the whole country—in Confucian words, cultivate the self, regulate the family, and govern the country. An ultimate goal of this sequence is to achieve world harmony. When his student Fan Chi asked about ren, Confucius explained that its meaning was to love humankind (Analects 12:22).
In Confucius’s eyes, love is a natural and spontaneous feeling that requires cultivation through education. It is also the most supreme virtue. A perfect person would cultivate and implement the virtue of love to its fullest extent. Reciprocity is a case in point. It means that what people do not wish to be done to them, they do not do to others.
To extend one’s own love to the family, ren consists of filial piety, conjugal love, and respect among brothers and sisters. Filial piety means the cultivated feeling toward one’s parents. According to Confucius, when people are at home with parents, they should be filial. Confucius set himself up as an example. When his parents died, he mourned for them for three years. This is the performance of a filial son. Conjugal love means the cultivated feeling toward one’s partner. Although little information exists about Confucius’s marriage, he believed that a couple should carry out their conjugal duties. Respect among brothers and sisters means the cultivated feeling toward one’s contemporaries. Reciprocity then applies to one’s parents, to couples, and to one’s contemporaries.
Ren can also be used as a principle to govern a country. According to Confucius, government by virtue is superior to government by law. The ruler should be a model for the common people. To love all humankind, rulers must observe the principle of nonviolence. In other words, the government of love deemphasizes severe punishment imposed on the wrongdoer. For Confucius, if the ruler restricts the people with law and punishment, they will still violate the law. Therefore, the correct method of governing is not by law enforcement, but by supervising the moral education of the common people. The ruler, in the first instance, is required to cultivate himself or herself to become as perfect a person as possible.
Confucius placed strong emphasis on the importance of human relationships and dismissed the importance of the spiritual world. He was reluctant to discuss religious issues with his students. He had certain religious convictions, but did not use them as the basis of his philosophy. This is why vigorous debates on whether Confucianism is a religion or a philosophy still continue. Confucius once urged his students to serve people before they could think of serving spirits. Similarly, the students should get to know life before they could think of knowing death. Although he had little knowledge of the spiritual world, he used religious ceremonies as a way of practicing rites to achieve ren.
The teachings of Confucius were recorded in an important extant work, The Analects. This collection, which was compiled posthumously by his disciples, gives several glimpses of the lively debates in Confucius’s classes. Another major work by Confucius, The Spring andAu-tumn Annals, reflects his political philosophy. It is a court chronicle of the state of Lu that became an original classic used by some later schools of Confucianism. The earliest biography of Confucius appears in Historical Records by Sima Qian, who is known as “the father of Chinese history.” With these sources, the Chinese of later generations were and are able to understand more about Confucius and his thoughts.
Chinese thinkers of the Eastern Zhou entered into what is called the classical period of Chinese philosophy—the hundred schools. Several schools of thought—Confucianism (Kongzi, Mengzi, Xunzi), Daoism (Laozi, Zhuangzi), Mohism (Mozi), Legalism (Han Feizi), among others—appeared. The Han Dynasty adopted Confucianism as its state religion in 206 BCE. It was introduced to Western countries by Matteo Ricci, who was the first European Jesuit to Latinize the name Kong Fuzi or Kongzi as “Confucius.”