Confucius (551-479 BCE)
Laying the Foundation for East Asian Civilization

Image of Confucius in a Confucian Temple
Confucius Icon (Cartoon)
Map of the Western Zhou period
Icon of Confucius (Traditional)
Divine light illuminating the ruler with the Chinese words "tianming" (Mandate of Heaven)
 
King Cheng was the second of the Western Zhou dynasty rulers; he reigned from 1043 to 1021 B.C.E., not long after his father, King Wu, conquered the last Shang king. King Cheng was a child when he came to power; his father's younger brother — Dan, the powerful duke of Zhou — assumed the regency for seven years until Cheng was old enough to assume the Mandate of Heaven (or tianming), the religious power that entitled him to rule. In the last year of his regency, as a new city, Luoyang, was being built, the duke made this speech, the Shao Announcement, describing the mandate received by a virtuous king and his heirs as long as they ruled with wisdom and benevolence. When a dynasty crumbled, possibly from corruption or cruelty, and the family was dethroned, it was said they had lost the mandate that entitled them to govern by divine right. (Shao Announcement).
 
Portrait of the Duke of ZhouAh! August Heaven, High God [Shangdi; a.k.a. the Lord on High], has changed his principal son and has revoked the Mandate of this great state of Yin [a.k.a. Shang]. When a king receives the Mandate, without limit is the grace thereof, but also without limit is the anxiety of it. Ah! How can he fail to be reverently careful! Heaven has rejected and ended the Mandate of this great state of Yin. Thus, although Yin has many former wise kings in Heaven, when their successor kings and successor people undertook their Mandate, in the end wise and good men lived in misery. Knowing that they must care for and sustain their wives and children, they then called out in anguish to Heaven and fled to places where they could not be caught. Ah! Heaven too grieved for the people of all the lands, wanting, with affection, in giving its Mandate to employ those who are deeply committed. The king should have reverent care for his virtue [de ]. ... Let the king reverently function in his position; he cannot but be reverently careful of his virtue. We cannot fail to mirror ourselves in the Xia [an earlier dynasty]; also we cannot fail to mirror ourselves in the Yin. ... We must not presume to suppose that the Yin received the Mandate of Heaven for a fixed period of years; we must not presume to suppose that it was not going to continue. It was because they did not reverently care for their virtue that they early let their Mandate fall. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 36; cf. HEA, 34-5)
 
 
Maps of the Western Zhou and Spring & Autumn periods
 
Confucius with the Chinese Character "Dao" (Way)
“Confucius” is the Latinized (i.e., European) version of the Chinese title Kong Fuzi (or more simply, Kongzi), which means “Master Kong.”His proper name was Kong Qiu, and he was born in the northeastern state of Lu, in what is now Shangdong Province. In his own lifetime, Confucius remained a somewhat obscure teacher. Most of what we know reliably about both the man and his ideas derives from a single collection of his conversations that was compiled by his followers some time after his death, called the Analects (in Chinese, Lunyu).
 
Confucius was born in the domain of Zou, in modern Shandong Province, south of the larger kingdom of Lu. A date of 551 BCE is given for his birth in the Gongyang Commentary (Gongyang zhuan 公羊傳) to the classic Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu 春秋), which places him in the period when the influence of the Zhou polity was declining, and regional domains were becoming independent states. His father, who came from Lu, was descended from a noble clan that included, in Sima Qian’s telling, several people known for their modesty and ritual mastery. His father died when Confucius was a small child, leaving the family poor but with some social status, and as a young man Confucius became known for expertise in the classical ritual and ceremonial forms of the Zhou. In adulthood, Confucius travelled to Lu and began a career as an official in the employ of aristocratic families.
 
Map showing the travels of Confucius, c. 497-494 BCE)
 
Different sources identify Confucius as having held a large number of different offices in Lu. Entries in the Zuo Commentary (Zuozhuan 左傳) to the Spring and Autumn Annals for 509 and 500 BCE identify him as Director of Corrections (Sikou 司寇), and say he was charged with assisting the ruler with the rituals surrounding a visiting dignitary from the state of Qi, respectively. The Mencius (Mengzi 孟子), a text centered on a figure generally regarded as the most important early developer of the thought of Confucius, Mencius (trad. 372–289 BCE), says Confucius was Foodstuffs Scribe (Weili 委吏) and Scribe in the Field (Chengtian 乘田), involved with managing the accounting at the granary and keeping the books on the pasturing of different animals (11.14).[1] In the first biography, Sima Qian mentions these offices, but then adds a second set of more powerful positions in Lu including Steward (Zai ) managing an estate in the district of Zhongdu, Minister of Works (Sikong 司空), and even acting Chancellor (Xiang ). Following his departure from Lu, different stories place Confucius in the kingdoms of Wei, Song, Chen, Cai, and Chu. Sima Qian crafted these stories into a serial narrative of rulers failing to appreciate the moral worth of Confucius, whose high standards forced him to continue to travel in search of an incorrupt ruler. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy/Confucius)
 
Confucius’s central message was one of leadership by moral example. He believed that any attempt to govern through regulations and punishments would only encourage people to find clever ways to evade the law, but that if you led through proper ritual (li) and moral force (de) the people would spontaneously correct themselves. Confucius, for example, once explicitly rejected capital punishment, saying, “Sir, in conducting your government, why use killing? ... The virtue of the noble person is like the wind, and the virtue of small people is like grass. When the wind blows over the grass, the grass must bend.
 
Ripples
 
The key to a good society was individual self-cultivation of moral principles by a gentleman (junzi), who might then hope to influence other people nearby and eventually even bring peace on earth. As Confucius said, the gentleman “cultivates himself so as to give peace to all the people.” Confucius once charmingly described how this process of self-cultivation and internalization of virtue had worked in his own life: At fifteen, my heart was set upon learning; at thirty, I had become established; at forty, I was no longer perplexed; ... at seventy, I could follow my heart’s desirs without crossing the line.” (HEA, 38)
 

 
Ritual Propriety (Li)
Yan Yuan asked about humaneness. The Master said, “To overcome self-centeredness and return to ritual propriety is the way to become humane. If one could overcome self-centeredness and return to ritual propriety for a single day, the whole world would return to humaneness. Does the implementation of humaneness depend on oneself or on others?” Yan Yuan said: “May I ask about the details?” The Master said “If it does not accord with ritual propriety do not look; if it does not accord with ritual propriety do not listen; if it does not accord with ritual propriety do not speak; if it does not accord with ritual propriety do not act.” Yan Yuan said: “Though I am not clever, I will try to put these words into practice. (Analects 12:1 [translated by Brian Hoffert])
Chinese character for "ritual/propriety" (li)
Two-directional Arrow
Chinese character for "humaneness" (ren)
Humaneness (Ren)
With regard to humaneness: wishing to establish oneself, one helps to establish others; wishing to develop oneself, one helps to develop others. The ability to take what is close (i.e. what one wishes for oneself) as an analogy [for what others would also wish for] — this may be called the method of [cultivating] humaneness. (Analects 6:30 [translated by Brian Hoffert]; cf. A History of East Asia, 38)
 
NOTE: The translation in A History of East Asia is unclear, as it seems to imply that one must first establish/develop oneself before one can establish/develop others. I suspect that this was not the translator’s intention, since the original text clearly implies that if one wishes to establish/develop oneself one should establish/develop others, which is to say that helping others is the means by which one helps oneself. In other words, this statement represents a positive version of the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”), which serves as a complement to the negative version: “Do not impose upon others what you would not wish for yourself” (Analects 15:24).
 
 
Ritual and Humaneness (primary Confucian virtues)
Filial Piety (Xiao)
The Intersection of Ritual/Propriety and Humaneness
Filial piety refers to showing proper respect to parents and ancestors. It is perhaps the most difficult Confucian value for modern Western individualists to feel much sympathy for, but Confucians traditionally viewed filial piety as the absolute bedrock of a good society. As one passage in the Analects put it, “Among those who are filial toward their parents and fraternal towards their brothers, those who are inclined to offend against their superiors are few indeed. ... Being filial and fraternal — is this not the root of humaneness?”
Filial Piety: girl massaging father while he washes grandma's feet!
According to Confucian doctrine, there are three grades of filial piety: the lowest is to support one’s parents, the second is not to bring humiliation to one’s parents and ancestors, and the highest is to glorify them. In the ancient Book of Rites, as revived by Confucius, deference to one’s parents is scrupulously defined. For instance, a husband and his wife should go to visit their parents and parents-in-law, whereupon:
 
Chinese character for "filial piety" (xiao)On getting to where they are, with bated breath and gentle voice, they should ask if their clothes are (too) warm or (too) cold, whether they are ill or pained, or uncomfortable in any part; and if they be so, they should proceed reverently to stroke and scratch the place. They should in the same way, going before or following after, help and support their parents in quitting or entering (the apartment). In bringing in the basin for them to wash, the younger will carry the stand and the elder the water; they will beg to be allowed to pour out the water, and when the washing is concluded, they will hand the towel. They will ask whether they want anything, and then respectfully bring it. All this they will do with an appearance of pleasure to make their parents feel at ease. (Living Religions, 208)
 
 
strengths and weaknesses?
 
Is "ritual propriety" the best way to cultivate "humaneness"?
And is this the ideal way to create a moral society?

 
Map of the Warring States period with various philosophers
The Significance of Confucius
Confucianism is commonly considered to be the mainstream of Chinese, and East Asian, tradition. Surprisingly, however, a plausible argument can be made that Confucianism is really “a Western invention.” In fact, there is no Chinese word or concept that precisely corresponds with our English word Confucian. The closest Chinese-language approximation, Ru, refers more specifically to scholars who study the ancient classics (with Confucianism as the “Teachings of the Ru” — Rujiao). It was those classic texts, in particular, that were fundamental to the premodern Chinese cultural tradition.
The Four Books and Five Classics
Although the classics include what may be the oldest books in the Chinese literary tradition ... theclassics did not assume their final form until relatively late and did not attain venerated canonical status until the late second century BCE. There are five core Confucian Classics: [The Book of Documents (Shujing), The Book of Odes (Shijing), The Book of Changes (Yijing), The Rites (Li), and The Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu)]. ... From the time they first achieved canonical status in the late second century BCE until the early twentieth century CE, these texts remained at the heart of formal education in China (and to a large extent all of East Asia). ...
 
Map showing the spread of Confucianism throughout East Asia
 
The Confucian Classics spread, together with literacy itself, to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, where they gained increasing influence over time. In Japan, the heyday of Confucianism did not come until the early modern Tokugawa period (1603-1868 CE). ... In Korea, the peak period of Confucian influence also coincided with the last premodern dynasty, Choson (1392-1910). ... East Asia can, to a large extent, even be defined in terms of this shared Confucianism, which coincided also with a shared use of the Chinese writing system and classical written language. This common literary language enabled educated premodern Koreans, Japanese, and Vietnamese to read the Confucian Classics in their original words rather than in translation. ... In general, the classics were regarded as being no more uniquely Chinese than the Old Testament of the Bible is uniquely Jewish, the Koran uniquely Arab, or the Buddhist scriptures uniquely Indian. The appeal was, instead, to supposedly universal truth. (HEA, 36-7)
Confucius Icon (Abstract)