Confucius, the great Chinese sage, was born June 19th, 551 B.C. at Shang-ping, in the country of Lu, to a poor descendant of a deposed noble family.
His real name was Kong, but his disciples called him Kong-fu-tse, (i.e. Kong the Master, or Teacher,) which the Jesuit missionaries Latinized into Confucius.
His father died when Confucius was only three years of age, but he was very carefully brought up by his mother, Yan-she, and from his earliest years, displayed an extraordinary love of learning, and veneration for the ancient laws of his country. As a child, he held make-believe temple rituals; as a young adult, he quickly earned a reputation for fairness, politeness and love of learning, and he was reputed to be quite tall.
When only 19 Confucius married, but divorced his wife four years after marriage that he might have more time for study and the performance of his public duties. The death of his mother, which occurred when he was 23, gave occasion to the first solemn and important act of Confucius as a moral reformer. The solemnity and splendor of the burial ceremony with which he honored her remains, (an old custom which had fallen into disuse,) struck his fellow citizens with astonishment, and they determined for the future to bury their dead with the ancient honors.
Their example was followed by the neighboring states, and the whole nation, except the poorest class. Confucius did not end here. He shut himself up in his house to pass in solitude the three years of mourning for his mother, the whole of which time he dedicated to philosophical study. He reflected deeply on the eternal laws of morality, traced them to their source, imbued his mind with a sense of the duties they impose indiscriminately on all men, and determined to make them the immutable rule of all his actions. Henceforth his career is only an illustration of his ethical system. He commenced to instruct his countrymen in the precepts of morality, exhibiting in his own person all the virtues he inculcated in others. Gradually his disciples increased, as the practical character of his philosophy became more apparent. His disciples generally were not the young and enthusiastic, but men of middle age, sober, grave, respectable, and occupying important public situations. This fact throws light both on the character and design of his philsosophy. It was moral, not religious, and aimed exclusively at fitting men for conducting themselves honorably and prudently in this life.
He gained renown as a teacher, but when he was 35. When Duke Zhao of Lu led his country to war, Confucius fled to the neighboring country of Qi; in the disorder following the battle, Confucius followed. Duke Zhao frequently came to him for advice, but upon counsel of one of his ministers, he decided against granting land to Confucius and gradually stopped seeking his counsel. When other nobles began plotting against Confucius’ position, Duke Zhao refused to intervene, and Confucius returned to Lu. But conditions there were no better than before, and Confucius retired from public life to concentrate on teaching and studying.
At age 50, he was approached by the Baron of Qi to help defend against a rebellion, but he declined. He was later made a city magistrate by the new Duke of Lu, and under his administration the city flourished; he was promoted several times, eventually becoming Grand Secretary of Justice and, at age 56, Chief Minister of Lu. Neighboring countries began to worry that Lu would become too powerful, and they sent messengers with gifts and dancers to distract the duke during a sacrifice holiday. When the duke abandoned his duties to receive the messengers, Confucius resigned and left the country.
Confucius spent the next five years wandering China with his disciples, finding that his presence at royal courts was rarely tolerated for long before nobles would begin plotting to drive him out or have him killed. He was arrested once and jailed for five days, and at 62 he was pursued, along with his disciples, into the countryside by a band of soldiers sent by jealous nobles, until he was able to send a messenger to the sympathetic king of a nearby country, who sent his own soldiers to rescue them. Once again, Confucius was to be given land but was denied it upon counsel of another high minister. After further wanderings, he eventually returned to Lu at age 67. Although he was welcomed there and chose to remain, he was not offered public office again, nor did he seek it. Instead he spent the rest of his years teaching and, finally, writing.
He died at 72.
While Confucius’ system is termed a religion, it ought rather to be regarded as a method of political and social life, built upon a slight foundation of philosophy. It contains no trace of a personal God, though there are indeed a number of allusions to a certain heavenly agency or power, Shang-te, whose outward emblem is Tien, or the visible firmament.
Confucianism appeals to practical men. It lauds the present world and calls upon all to cultivate such virtues as are seemly in citizens – industry, modesty, sobriety, gravity, decorum and thoughtfulness. It also counsels men to take part in whatever religious services have been established of old. “There may be some meaning in them, and they may affect your welfare in a way you do not know of. And for the genii and spirits, sacrifice unto them; I have nothing to tell regarding them, whether they exist or not; but their worship is a part of an august and awful ceremonial, which a wise man will not neglect or despise.” Confucianism, in consequence, almost immediately after the death of its author, became the religion of the state, to which it proved an admirable ally.
Major Works of Confucius
– The Analects
– The Doctrine of the Mean
– The Great Learning