The World of Confucius
A Response to Sociopolitical Decline
Historical sources contain surprisingly little information about the man who would become China’s most renowned thinker. The man whom today we call Confucius was born to the Kong family in Qufu, Shandong, and given the name Qiu (“hill”). During his lifetime he was called Kongzi, or Master Kong. Confucius is the translation of the little-used title, Kong Fuzi (“Master Kong”), adopted by the Jesuits in the sixteenth century.
       Confucius was born to a man who had the rank of knight, or “man of service,” which was the lowest-ranking group of the nobility. As a young man, he held several low-ranking positions managing accounts and watching over livestock. Then he began a career as a tutor to ambitious young men who wanted to learn the art of ruling. Throughout his life he claimed to seek employment as an advisor to a ruler, but surviving sources disagree about whether he gained office. [OE, 68]
Our only source for understanding the teachings of Confucius, The Analects (meaning “discussions and conversations” or “arranged discourses”), presents Confucius as his disciples, or their disciples, remembered him. Because Confucius lived at a time before written books circulated, his conversations were first orally transmitted and then written down on strips of wood and bamboo later. Just as the gospels present different impressions of Jesus, so too does The Analects give us different impressions of Confucius, all in the same book. No longer than several chapters of the Bible, the book may have assumed its current shape as late as the first century B.C.E., when the first reference to a book entitled The Analects appears. As biblical scholars have in recent years shown that each of the gospels is composed of different layers of texts, quite possibly by different authors, so too have Confucian scholars begun to question the textual integrity of The Analects. [OE, 69]
The Teachings of Confucius
Ritual and Humaneness

In the received version of The Analects, Confucius claims that he did not introduce any new ideas, maintaining that he was seeking simply to return the disordered empire to an earlier time. “I transmit but do not innovate; I am truthful in what I say and devoted to antiquity” (7.1). ... Contrary to his claim, Confucius did innovate. ... In his concept of ritual (li), Confucius ... introduced something new. His contemporaries used the term to refer to specific rituals, but Confucius recognized an abstract quality common to them that applied to the forms of all social interactions. If men could learn to employ this quality, he taught, society could be reformed. To Confucius, ritual offered the individual the best opportunity to develop his own humaneness (ren), an essential quality also translated as “benevolence,” “goodness,” “exemplary humanity,” and “manhood-at-its-best.”
       One analyst has suggested the example of a handshake as a rough illustration of Confucius’s concept of ritual in modern life. Although one has to learn under what circumstances to shake hands and when to extend one’s hand, one can use handshaking to express delight, reluctance, or even repugnance on meeting another. The rituals Confucius discussed, many of them deriving from the ancestral worship of the Zhou, had many more steps than a simple handshake; but if they were learned correctly, they too could express one’s innermost humanity. [OE, 70-4]

The Magic of Ritual
I see you on the street; I smile, walk towards you, put out my hand to shake yours. And behold — without any command, stratagem, force, special tricks or tools, without any effort on my part to make you do so, you spontaneously turn toward me, return my smile, raise your hand toward mine. We shake hands — not by my pulling your hand up and down or your pulling mine but by spontaneous and perfect cooperative action. Normally we do not notice the subtlety and amazing complexity of this coordinated “ritual” act. This subtlety and complexity become very evident, however, if one has had to learn the ceremony only from a book of instructions, or if one is a foreigner from a nonhandshaking culture. [The Secular as Sacred, 9]
The Rectification of Names

When Duke Jing of Qi asked Confucius about government, he replied, “Let the ruler be a ruler, the subject a subject, the father a father, the son a son.” That is, let everyone play his proper role in the traditional order inherited from early Zhou and in the natural order ofthe family, and all will be well (XII, 11). [MOF, 17]
The Zhou founders had devised a harmonious social and political hierarchy, its ranks constantly displayed in distinctions of ceremonial display, forms of greeting, even tombs and coffins. Now both these ceremonial orders and the realities they represented were being constantly flouted. In Lu the legitimate dukes had been ciphers under the power of three great ministerial families for all of Confucius’s life, and the most powerful of them, the Ji, used eight rows of dancers at a ceremonial dance in their courtyard, which was a prerogative of the Zhou kings granted to the dukes of Lu because of their descent from the duke of Zhou. “If this can be tolerated,” said Confucius, “what cannot be tolerated?” (III, 1). [MOF, 16-7]

“The noble person (junzi) is concerned with rightness;
the small person is concerned with profit.”
[SCT, 49 (Analects 4:16)]
The expression junzi itself packs a complex history and set of associations. The characters literally mean son of the prince,” ... and the frequent contrast with the little man” make it clear that this term has a background of class feeling, of contrast between the values and actions appropriate to rulers and those for the ruled, much like the history of gentleman” in English and many other important moral terms. In early Zhou texts junzi usually simply means the ruler.” It was Confucius’ great achievement to insist that not only those who had a hereditary right to office could aspire to be gentlemen, but anyone who sought education, moral growth, and involvement in governing; his gentleman is a highly appropriate ideal for the rising class of the shi, the lowest aristocracy with no hereditary right to office. [MOF, 25] 

Although he said little about his own family, and nothing about his mother or his wife, Confucius advocated implementing his teachings first within individual families. Strikingly, he described a small family unit, in which sons lived together with their wives and their parents. The main bond in the family, Confucius stressed repeatedly, is that between parent and child. Children should obey and honor their parents, even when they disagree with them. Because one’s parents raised one from birth, one owes them an enormous obligation that can never be repaid. During their parents’ lifetimes, children should obey their wishes, and after their deaths, children should continue for three years to conduct family affairs just as their parents had. ... Confucius stressed the obligations of the individual because he believed that, provided each person could tap into his own humanity while adhering to the dictates of ritual within his family, the realm as a whole would be reformed and the Way restored. One need not serve a ruler in order to bring about reform. When someone asked Confucius why he did not hold a government post, he cited one of the classics, The Book of Documents:
“Only cultivate filial piety and be kind to your brothers, and you will be contributing to the body politic.” This is also a form of political action; one need not necessarily join the government. (2.21)
This idea runs through much of Confucius’s teaching. One can influence the world simply by behaving as a gentleman at home — even when the world around one is engulfed in chaos. [OE, 74-6]
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. [Analects 12:1 (translated by Brian Hoffert); cf. MOF, 29-30]
  • Can this approach to self-transformation really transform the world?