Life and Deeds
K'ung Fu-tzu (K'ung the master, Latinized as Confucius) was
born in the state of Lu in 551 BC and died in 479. Chinese
culture already had a long history from the ancient sage emperors
through the Hsia Dynasty (2183-1752) to the Shang Dynasty
(1751-1112) and into the Chou Dynasty (1111-249).1 As the
power of the feudal lords increased, they overthrew the king
and established a new capital, marking the beginning of the
Eastern Chou period in 770 BC. During the nearly three centuries
of the Spring and Autumn period (until 481), the various states
struggled against each other to expand their borders. The
peripheral states faced and could civilize the exterior barbarians,
while the smaller central states, which were more cultured,
were liable to encroachment on all sides. Men of these cultured
and vulnerable states began to develop philosophies of peace
and happiness while the peripheral states often emphasized
force and discipline.2 These conflicts continued after Confucius
through the period of Warring States until China was unified
(and named) by the forceful but short-lived Ch'in Dynasty
(221-206). During these continual conflicts treaties were
sworn to before the spirits and quickly broken. Religion and
ethics suffered when compared to the efficacy of force and
might.3 Lu was a small, cultured state, constantly threatened
by wars from its northern neighbor Ch'i. Within the state
there were also struggles and political intrigues between
the "three families" with the hereditary right to
rule, and among ministers and officials seeking more power.
Assassinations, bribery, adultery, and other crimes were commonplace
even though punishments were severe. In this feudal society,
the aristocrats began to multiply until there were too many
to be supported by the state in governmental positions without
bankrupting the country. Therefore the lower aristocrats (shih)
who were cultured and educated began to suffer poverty like
the ignorant peasants.4 What could they do about it? Confucius
was born as a shih in these circumstances.
As a member of an aristocratic family Confucius must have
had opportunities to study the classical writings and to take
up music and sports such as fishing and archery. That he practiced
these as befitting a gentleman of principles is indicated
by the statement that "Confucius fished, but not with
a net; he shot, but not at a bird at rest."5 Confucius
loved music, as can be seen by an incident at age thirty-six
when he fled the current political chaos in Lu to go to the
northern state of Ch'i. There he heard the music of the Succession
Dance commemorating the inauguration of the legendary Emperor
Shun. He exclaimed, "I did not picture to myself that
any music existed which could reach such perfection as this,"
and for three months he did not know the taste of meat.6
However, he did have the opportunity to learn practical accomplishments
which elude the well-to-do aristocrat. "When I was young,
I was in humble circumstances, and therefore I acquired much
ability to do the simple things of humble folk. Does a gentleman
need to have so much ability? He does not."7 Confucius
said this in response to an inquiry from a great official
who apparently doubted whether a man of low accomplishments
could be a sage. The disciple Tzu-kung replied that Heaven
endowed his master so liberally that he was to become a sage
even though he has practical ability. After the conversation
with Confucius, his pupil Lao returned this answer to the
official: "The Master said, 'I have not been given official
employment, and therefore I acquired the ability for the simple
arts.'"8 It is not unlikely that these experiences helped
Confucius develop a more practical wisdom useful to more people.
However, practical experience alone is not enough to become
wise; it must be handled correctly. Mencius describes two
of Confucius' jobs and the goals he sought in each. "Confucius
was once keeper of stores, and he then said, 'It is only necessary
that my accounts be correct.' He was once in charge of pastures,
and said, 'It is my duty only to see that the oxen and sheep
are well-grown and strong.'"9 Confucius' humility and
industriousness set a good example and gave him a deeper understanding
of the common people.
In spite of his practical abilities and his reputation for
wisdom, Confucius had difficulty finding a suitable position
in government his whole life long even though he was ambitious
for such an opportunity. He was willing to do any type of
work as long as it was ethical, but if honest work was not
available he was happy continuing his studies. "If any
means of escaping poverty presented itself, that did not involve
doing wrong, I would adopt it, even though employment were
that of the gentleman who holds the whip. But as long as it
is a question of illegitimate means, I shall continue to pursue
the quests that I love."10 He seems to have occupied
his time with learning from a very early age. Reflecting on
his life shortly before his death, he tells us that at age
fifteen he set his heart (mind) on learning.11 No teacher
is mentioned as having any particular influence on him. He
seems to have been most impressed by the ancients described
in the classics. When one of his disciples was asked where
Confucius derived his learning, he mentioned the Way of the
first Chou kings Wen and Wu (c. 1111 BC) whose principles
were still all around. He concludes, "From whom indeed
did our Master not learn? But at the same time, what need
had he of any fixed and regular teacher."12 As we shall
see, part of Confucius' genius was to take any situation and
make it of educational value. He strove diligently to learn,
and the ancients had a peculiar fascination for him: "I
am not one who was born with knowledge. I love the ancient
teachings and earnestly seek them."13 By not claiming
to know already, he exemplifies the pursuit of wisdom.
There were few books at the time made of bamboo strips tied
by cords, but Confucius appears to have made a thorough study
of the classics of history, poetry, rituals, and the oracle
of changes. As often as he quotes from them, it is likely
that he memorized most or all of the three hundred or so poems
from the ancient days. He must have continued to study throughout
his life, for he wished he could have more time to learn from
the Book of Changes (I Ching): "Give me a few more years
so that I can devote fifty years to study Change, and I may
be free from great mistakes."14
Confucius' own family is rarely mentioned. Tradition indicates
he became an orphan at an early age and that his older brother
was a cripple. He married, and had a son and a daughter. He
selected a husband for his daughter and also one for his brother's
daughter.15 It is surmised that due to his brother's condition,
his duties fell upon Confucius. One of the few claims that
he made was that he had served the Duke and his officers at
the Court, and his father and elder brother at home; he did
not neglect proper mourning, nor was he overcome by wine.16
After he had served the government in some minor positions,
and in between his rare opportunities to give political advice,
what did Confucius do? Apparently as his learning and wisdom
increased he began to attract students and disciples. He was
probably supported mostly by his students, although he may
have at times received some salary from the government. He
said that he never refused to instruct anyone who brought
him something, no matter how poor.17 Confucius is the first
professional teacher that we know of in ancient China. Little
is known about Confucius' role as a political advisor or of
any of his students' activities until he was at least fifty
years old. It was about this time that Confucius recognized
his divine mission. It is edifying to note that when he looked
back over his life's progression he measured it in terms of
his inner development rather than his outer positions or accomplishments.
"At fifteen my mind was set on learning. At thirty my
character had been formed. At forty I had no more perplexities.
At fifty I knew the Will of Heaven. At sixty I was at ease
with whatever I heard. At seventy I could follow my heart's
desire without transgressing moral principles."18
Fifty must have been a turning point in Confucius' life.
Shortly after that he was given a position in the government
in which he was to be consulted on important decisions. However,
one incident implies that his advice was not really sought.19
Ironically several of his disciples were given key positions
and advanced in the government. Chi K'ang-tzu who became the
head of the three families who ruled in Lu, was advised personally
by Confucius for several years to promote good government.
Chi K'ang-tzu asked whether there were any form of encouragement
by which he could induce the common people to be respectful
and loyal. Confucius said, "Approach them with dignity,
and they will respect you. Show piety towards your parents
and kindness toward your children, and they will be loyal
to you. Promote those who are worthy, train those who are
incompetent; that is the best form of encouragement."20
We see here that Confucius advises setting a good example
so that the people will follow. Certainly this advice would
have little strength if Confucius himself was not living up
to it. In fact, his recommendation to select officials based
on ability and education represents a key change of emphasis
in Chinese culture away from hereditary privilege. Confucius
was indeed busy not only preparing himself, but training and
educating those who came to him so that they might serve in
a more enlightened government. At another time Chi K'ang-tzu
asked Confucius whether his disciples Tzu-lu, Tzu-kung, and
Jan Ch'iu would be the right sort of persons to be put into
office. Confucius recommended each of them for their efficiency,
understanding, and versatility, respectively.21 Later all
three of them held important positions in the Chi family.22
In his late fifties Confucius left the state of Lu to travel
to other states in order to see if he could advise other rulers
to put his principles into practice. Mencius says he departed
because the duke was not following his counsel; so he used
a ceremonial impropriety toward him as a pretext for going.23
While in the state of Wei, Confucius had an interview with
the infamous Nan-tzu, a woman who had been involved in incest,
adultery, and political intrigue.24 When one of his disciples
Tzu-lu, a strict moralist, appeared displeased, Confucius
swore an oath, "Whatsoever I have done amiss, may Heaven
avert it, may Heaven avert it!"25 Like Jesus, he was
not afraid to talk with a sinner. When the Duke of Wei asked
his advice on military strategy, Confucius replied that he
had some knowledge of sacrificial vessels, but he had not
studied warfare. The next day he left Wei to go to Ch'en.26
While he was traveling through Sung, Huan T'ui the Sung Minister
of War attempted to intercept and assassinate him.27 Confucius
responded calmly, "Heaven produced the virtue that is
in me. What do I have to fear from such a one as Huan T'ui?"28
In spite of this incident Confucius still accepted Huan T'ui's
brother Ssu-ma Niu as one of his regular students, although
Ssu-ma Niu did renounce his dastardly brother.29 Another student
told him that the gentleman considers all men as brothers,
demonstrating again the Confucian ideal of virtue rather than
blood.30 Confucius was also trapped at K'uang, and for a time
thought that his favorite disciple Yen Hui was dead.31 By
the time they got to Ch'en they were weak and short of supplies.32
In Ch'en he apparently did not get a chance to talk with
the duke, because they were embroiled in wars at the time,
but he did have a brief interview with the Minister of Crime
concerning propriety.33 Mencius says that the reason he had
a difficult time here was because neither the rulers nor the
minister communicated with him.34 While in Ch'en Confucius
wanted to go back to Lu, because he said the disciples there
were becoming "headstrong and careless."35 Why did
he travel from place to place? One disrespectful man asked
him if it was not to show off that he was a clever talker,
but Confucius denied it, saying he did not like obstinacy.36
In other words, instead of stubbornly trying to improve a
ruler against his will, he preferred to move on. The only
ruler who seemed to consider virtue as important was the Duke
of She in the small state of Ts'ai.37 Apparently Confucius
did go to see him, because they did converse briefly.38
During a civil war in Chin, Confucius was invited there by
an officer, but Tzu-lu was quick to point out that technically
they were in rebellion and what people would say. He decided
not to go, but lamented that he was "like the bitter
gourd that is only fit to hang up, but not to eat."39
A similar offer came from the Pi castle when they were in
revolt against the Chi family. Again Tzu-lu registered his
objection, and Confucius must have rejected it although he
felt he "could make a 'Chou in the east.'"40
Confucius went back to Wei where he got the opportunity to
advise the Minister K'ung Yu who was ruling for the young
Duke at the time. This man listened to Confucius, for when
asked why he was called "The Cultured," Confucius
said, "Because he was diligent and so fond of learning
that he was not ashamed to pick up knowledge even from his
inferiors."41 However, K'ung forced one of his nobles
to divorce his wives and marry one of his daughters, and when
he kept on seeing a concubine, K'ung was going to attack him.
So he asked Confucius how to do it. Confucius told him not
to, but when he went ahead with it, Confucius prepared his
chariot to leave. When he apologized, Confucius was ready
to change his mind, but then messengers from Lu arrived, inviting
him to return to his own state.42 Finally at the age of sixty-seven
he returned to Lu. However, even in his native state his advice
was not regarded. Chi K'ang-tzu sent Jan Ch'iu, whom Confucius
had taught, to inquire from the master his opinion about raising
taxes. Confucius' position in favor of the people was obvious,
and when Jan Ch'iu collected the increased taxes, Confucius
declared that he was no disciple of his.43
On at least two occasions Confucius gave advice to Duke Ai
during his last years at Lu. When asked how to gain the support
of the common people, he recommended advancing the upright
over the crooked.44 When the Duke of Ch'i was assassinated
in 481 BC, Confucius fasted and bathed before going to court
to advise Duke Ai to punish the usurper.45 However, the chiefs
of the three families were unwilling to take action. The master
must have been deeply disappointed in his old age that he
never really got the opportunity to participate fully in government.
"As far as taking trouble goes, I do not think I compare
badly with other people. But as regards carrying out the duties
of a gentleman in actual life, I have never yet had a chance
to show what I could do."46
In addition to teaching, Confucius probably spent much of
his last years working on some of the classics. One of them
was the Book of Poetry: "It was only after my return
from Wei to Lu that music was revised, Court songs and Ancestral
Recitations being at last properly discriminated."47
Mencius gives him credit for completing the Spring and Autumn
Annals which struck terror into "rebellious ministers
and villainous sons,"48 presumably due to the subtle
ethical interpretations. According to Mencius this was the
work by which Confucius believed people would know him and
condemn him.49 However, the book by this name which we have
today is a rather dry year by year chronicle of events. The
I Ching or Book of Changes also claims Confucius as having
written one of the first commentaries to this ancient classic.50
There is much wisdom in this book comparable to the sayings
of Confucius passed down by his disciples, but their authenticity
as being directly from Confucius is a matter of speculation.
The last couple of years of the master's life must have been
bitter ones considering the number of deaths among his close
associates. First his son died, then his favorite disciple
Yen Hui;51 the highest aristocrat among the disciples, Ssu-ma
Niu, had a tragic death in 481, and in 480 Tzu-lu was killed
as he heroically tried to rescue his chief in Wei.52 Confucius
seemed to face his own death calmly. Once when he was very
ill, Tzu-lu asked if he could pray for him, according to the
Eulogies, to the spirits of the upper and lower worlds. The
master responded, "My praying has been for a long time."53
Confucius outlived Tzu-lu by about a year, and died at the
age of seventy-two. The deeds of his life had been his prayer
1. Chan, Wing-tsit, Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, p.
2. Creel, H. G. Confucius: The Man and the Myth, p. 17.
3. Ibid. p. 19.
4. Ibid. p. 25.
5. Analects 7:26.
6. An. 7:13.
7. An. 9:6.
8. An. 9:6.
9. Mencius 5B, 5:4.
10. An. 7:11.
11. An. 2:4.
12. An. 9:22.
13. An. 7:19.
14. An. 7:16.
15. An. 5:1.
16. An. 9:15.
17. An. 7:7.
18. An. 2:4.
19. An. 13:14.
20. An. 2:20.
21. An. 6:6.
22. Creel, Confucius, p. 45.
23. Mencius 6B, 6:6.
24. Creel, Confucius, p. 52.
25. An. 6:26.
26. An. 15:1.
27. Mencius 5A, 8:3.
28. An. 7:22.
29. An. 12:5.
30. An. 12:5.
31. An. 11:22.
32. An. 15:1.
33. An. 7:30.
34. Mencius 7B, 18.
35. An. 5:21.
36. An. 14:34.
37. Creel, Confucius, p. 55-56.
38. An. 13:16, 13:18.
39. An. 17:7.
40. An. 17:5.
41. An. 5:14.
42. Creel, Confucius, p. 59.
43. An. 11:16.
44. An. 2:19.
45. An. 14:22.
46. An. 7:32.
47. An. 9:14.
48. Mencius 3B, 9:11.
49. Mencius 3B, 9:8.
50. I Ching, tr. Wilhelm/Baynes, p. 370.
51. An. 11:7, 11:8.
52. Creel, Confucius, p. 63.
53. An. 7:34.