Confucius (551/552-479 BC) was a Chinese teacher, philosopher and politician during the so-called Hundred Schools of Thought era. He was the founder of Confucianism, ethical and philosophical system that still has many followers in China. The philosopher is thought to write or edit many Chinese classic texts but modern scholars have expressed doubt that he is really the author/editor of all the works that are traditionally attributed to him. But there is no doubt that Confucius’ philosophical system dominated the Chinese thought for many centuries.

Name and Sources for the Philosopher’s Life and Work

Confucius’ name is a Latinised version of Kong Fuzi that was coined by Jesuit missionaries in China sometime in the 16th century. In Chinese, the philosopher is usually referred to as Kongzi. But he is also known by the names such as “the Master”, “First Teacher”, “Model Teacher for Ten Thousand Ages” and “the Laudably Declarable Lord Ni”.

Confucius’ life and work are surrounded by many myths and legends which make objective appraisal of historical Confucius very difficult. Only in the recent years the scholars managed to discard some records as mythical and create a clearer picture of the philosopher’s life and work.

The most extensive account of the philosopher’s life is provided by the Records of the Historian, written by Sima Qian in the late 2nd and early 1st century BC. Unfortunately, Sima Qian’s account is thought to be romanticised. Nevertheless, Sima Qian’s as well as other sources that are generally dismissed as fictionalised provide a solid basis for the philosopher’s biography when used with the Analects – the collection of Confucius’ conversations with his followers.

Early Life

According to Sima Qian, Confucius was a descendant of the Shang dynasty that preceded the Chou. The year of his birth is traditionally dated to 551 or 552 BC with the latter being thought to be more likely. His father, King He was a military officer who died when Confucius was only three years old. He was raised by his mother Yan Zhengzai and is said to live in poverty. According to the traditional belief, Confucius was forced to do all kinds of works from being a shepherd to book-keeping. Modern scholars believe that his family probably was not wealthy but they doubt that young Confucius was affected by poverty. They emphasise that he belonged to the class of shi which was ranked lower from aristocracy but higher from the commoners. And during his time, most shih were scholars, court officials and teachers. As a result, Confucius is thought to be work in occupations that were consistent with his class status.

Political Career

Confucius’ life and thought were influenced greatly by the decline of central authority in China in the 6th century BC. The Chou dynasty officially ruled the entire China but in reality, the Chou kingdom was a confederation of city-states that competed among each other for influence and power.

Confucius lived in the state of Lu that was officially ruled by a duke under whom were three aristocratic families – Meng, Ji and Shu. And it were the three families who de facto held power in the state of Lu. In 501 BC, the three families joined forces and expelled Duke Yang Hu but soon thereafter, Gongshan Furao who served the Ji family took the capital of Lu. He invited Confucius to enter his government but after some consideration, the philosopher refused. But in the same year, the philosopher entered politics under a legitimate government. After serving as a magistrate, he was promoted to the position of the minister of justice. The scholars speculate that he owed his political promotion to the Ji family which was the strongest of the three families. But the scholar also believe that he was working on reducing the families’ power. This clearly reveals his initiative to dismantle the walls of the three families’ seats of power. He managed to extract a promise from all three families but the Meng family changed its mind and the initiative failed.

Exile and Final Years in Lu

In 497, probably due to the failure to achieve his political objectives, Confucius decided to go in a self-exile. He left the state of Lu and travelled through the kingdoms of central and north-east China including the states of Song, Cai, Chen and Wei. He returned to Lu in 483 BC as an old man. The philosopher was warmly received but the last years of his life were not happy. He lost his only son and his favourite disciple Yen Hui. Probably devastated by the deaths of his son and disciple as well as the inability to persuade the rulers of the state of Lu to accept his political ideas, Confucius died in 479, aged 71 or 72.

Works and Philosophy

It remains uncertain how many and if any works that are attributed to Confucius were written by him. The account of his life and work is mostly based on the Analects, a collection of the philosopher’s conversations with his students and a few rulers. The Analects were compiled by Confucius’ followers shortly after his death and offer a valuable insight into his thought.

Confucius’ philosophical system reveals the influence of the Chinese tradition such ancestor worship, loyalty to the family, respect of the elders, etc.. It was Confucius who introduced the concepts of benevolence (jen), ritual (li) and proprietary (yi). He is also remembered for the so-called Golden Rule that is based on the principle “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself”.

The philosopher’s political thought was centred around a strong central government and the Mandate of Heaven which, however, also included his moral concepts. According to Confucius, the principle of succession should not be based on blood line but on moral merits instead. He argued that the society can progress only if it is led by virtue and as a result, the rulers should be an example of virtue to their people.