Influence on Followers

Over the several decades in which Confucius taught it is very difficult to estimate how many students he had. Unlike the Buddha and Jesus, there is no indication that he ever spoke to large groups of people. In The Analects there are the names of about twenty men who might have been regular students or disciples. The character of all these discussions is of personal conversations among a few individuals. None of Confucius' personal students became famous philosophers or religious leaders, although Confucianism was to become a dominant philosophy and even a religion. However, some of the disciples did write down the conversations they remember, preserving and passing on the teachings of their master. The authorship of The Analects is unknown, and the later Confucian texts of The Great Learning and The Doctrine of the Mean, although attributed to Confucius' grandson Tzu-ssu, may have been written a couple of centuries later. Mencius, who became the greatest Confucian philosopher next to Confucius himself, was a student of Tzu-ssu's pupil and was born at least a century after Confucius' death. Before we attempt to evaluate the overall influence of Confucius, let us first examine his immediate disciples.

What were these disciples like? How did they see themselves? What did Confucius think of them? We remember how Confucius did not consider himself a sage or even good, but he did claim that he was untiring in his effort to teach others. To this, one student replied, "The trouble is that we disciples cannot learn!"1 Confucius also felt that his students had their limitations and therefore could benefit from his care. Once during his travels in Ch'en he said, "Let us go back; let us go back! The little ones at home are headstrong and careless. They are perfecting themselves in all the showy insignia of culture without any idea how to use them."2 Yet it appears from The Analects that the disciples were aware of the mission of Confucius and probably sensed the part they could play in improving the world. An incident is recorded about the border guard at I who asked to see Confucius because he was always allowed to see a true gentleman whenever one passed by. After talking with Confucius he said to the disciples, "Sirs, why are you disheartened by your master's loss of office? The Way has not prevailed in the world for a long time. Heaven is going to use your master as a bell with a wooden tongue."3 Since Confucius was not accepted by the world, it was up to the disciples to set good examples in their conduct and spread the teachings.

The favorite student of Confucius appears to have been Yen Hui, for he often singled him out as excelling in learning and virtue. "Incomparable indeed was Hui! A handful of rice to eat, a gourdful of water to drink, living in a mean street---others would have found it unendurably depressing, but to Hui's cheerfulness it made no difference at all. Incomparable indeed was Hui!"4 Hui was humble and usually quiet, but Confucius felt that he far surpassed all the others in that most important quality of goodness. "About Hui, for three months there would be nothing in his mind contrary to goodness. The others could attain to this for a day or a month at the most."5 Actually Yen Hui was so quiet and obedient that some must have thought he was stupid. However, Confucius defends him from this charge, valuing good deeds more than clever words. "I can talk to Yen Hui a whole day without his ever differing from me. One would think he was stupid. But if I inquire into his private conduct when he is not with me I find that it fully demonstrates what I have taught him. No, Hui is by no means stupid."6

Yen Hui could express himself though, as in this passage where he marvels at the comprehensiveness and yet elusiveness of Confucius' teachings.

Yen Hui said with a deep sigh, "The more I strain my gaze up towards them, the higher they soar. The deeper I bore down into them, the more solid they become. I see them in front, but suddenly they are behind. Step by step the master skillfully leads me on. He has broadened me with culture and taught me the restraints of propriety. Even when I want to stop, I cannot. Just when I feel I have exerted all my ability, something seems to rise up, standing out sharp and clear. Even though I long to pursue it, I can find no way of getting to it at all."7

This statement indicates that Hui could have been a very subtle and earnest student. Apparently Confucius placed great faith in his development, but unfortunately the master was to lose him at a young age. "It was Hui whom I could count on always to listen attentively to anything I said.... Alas, I saw him go forward, but had no chance to see where this progress would have led him in the end."8 The untimely death of the disciple whom Confucius had placed above all the rest was a severe psychological blow to the master. Confucius expressed his regret to two noteworthy political leaders. When Duke Ai asked which of the disciples loved learning, he replied, "There was Yen Hui; he really loved to learn. He never vented his anger upon the innocent nor let others suffer for his faults. Unfortunately the span of life allotted to him by Heaven was short, and he died. Now there are none, or at any rate I have heard of none who are fond of learning."9 Confucius expressed the same idea of K'an-tzu of the Chi family, "There was Yen Hui. He was fond of learning, but unfortunately his allotted span was a short one, and he died. Now there is none."10

Confucius never seemed to place a strong faith in any disciple after Yen Hui died. Even such a prominent disciple as Tzu-kung did not consider himself in the same class with Yen Hui, as the following conversation shows:

Confucius said to Tzu-kung, "Which do you yourself think is better, you or Hui?" Tzu-kung answered, "I dare not compare myself with Hui. For Hui has but to hear one part in ten, in order to understand the whole ten. Whereas if I hear one part, I understand no more than two parts." Confucius said, "Not equal to him - you and I are not equal to him!"11

Of course Confucius and Tzu-kung are expressing themselves with humility here. Tzu-ch'in, another disciple, once challenged this modesty of Tzu-kung, saying to him, "This is an affectation of modesty. Chung-ni (Confucius) is in no way your superior." Tzu-kung reprimands the man and expresses his belief that Confucius could never be surpassed.

You should be more careful about what you say. A gentleman, though for a single word may be deemed wise, for a single word he may be deemed a fool. It would be as hard to equal our master as to climb up on a ladder to the sky. Had our master ever been put in control of a state or of a great family, it would have been as is described in the words; 'He raised them, and they stood; he led them, and they went. He steadied them with happiness, and they came to him. He stimulated them, and they moved harmoniously. His life was glorious, his death lamented.' How can such a one ever be equalled?12

Confucius did think enough of some of his disciples to recommend them for public office. When Chi K'ang-tzu who became head of the administration of Lu in 492 BC asked (perhaps at a time before that) whether Tzu-lu, Tzu-kung, and Jan Ch'iu were fit to be employed as officers in the government, Confucius said that each of them was capable of holding office.13 However, something which Tzu-lu did must have led Confucius to throw him out of his house, so that the other disciples no longer respected him. Confucius indicated his deficiency this way: "The truth about Yu is that he has got as far as the guest-hall, but has not yet entered the inner rooms."14 In other words, he understood the formal doctrines but not the inner teachings. Tzu-lu excelled in courage and daring but was lacking in the more important qualities of goodness and wisdom. He finally died a heroic and violent death (predicted by Confucius15) as he loyally refused to abandon the K'ung family in Wei, saying, "I have eaten their pay, and will not flee from their misfortunes." Attempting to save his prince, he was stabbed to death.16

Confucius also disowned Jan Ch'iu as a follower of his when Ch'iu collected too many taxes for the wealthy Chi family, saying, "My little ones, you may beat the drum and set upon him. I give you leave."17 Later he may have been allowed back into the circle of disciples; meanwhile he achieved great success in his service of the Chi family for many years.18

Tzu-kung who was noted for his eloquence became a successful diplomat "as an aide to the Lu envoy on several missions to other states."19 Confucius indicated that Tzu-kung (Ssu) became a wealthy man in contrast to Yen Hui who remained poor. "Hui comes very near to it. He is often empty. Ssu was discontented with his lot and has taken steps to enrich himself. Yet his judgments are often correct."20 Confucius seems to praise him in spite of his money-making which he frowned upon. After studying the ancient chronicles, the modern scholar Cho-yun Hsu concludes that Tzu-kung was a noted diplomat "whose international reputation stemmed not from noble blood, for he was a commoner, but from his own competence."21 This is a highly significant change in Chinese culture for which Confucius was in no small way responsible. Tzu-kung was one of those near to Confucius' own age who managed to outlive the master. Mencius tells us that Tzu-kung went back to the religious sanctuary near Confucius' grave, built a house and mourned for another three years.22 This indicates that Tzu-kung was the most devoted disciple at this time.

Confucius once made the following criticisms of some of his disciples: "Ch'ai is stupid. Shen is dull-witted. Shih is too formal. Yu is coarse."23 Shen is the familiar name of Tseng-tzu who is often quoted in The Analects and thus must have been influential after Confucius' death. However, the remark by Confucius calling him "dull-witted" indicates that he probably did not have control over the publication of The Analects. Mencius relates how he ran away when his house was going to be attacked, ordering his steward not to allow any people to stay in his house because they might harm the plants and trees.24 Apparently Tseng-tzu was not the humanist which Confucius was! Among his many quotes in The Analects he often emphasizes the virtue of filial piety, more than Confucius ever did.25 He may have been one reason why this very conservative virtue came to be so important in Confucianism, as the Classic of Filial Piety was often attributed to him.26

Immediately after his discussion of the disciples' mourning for Confucius, Mencius mentions an incident when the disciples "Tzu-hsia, Tzu-chang, and Tzu-yu thinking that Yu Jo resembled a sage, wished to render to him the same observances which they had rendered to Confucius. They tried to force the disciple Tseng to join with them, but he said, 'This may not be done.'"27 Yu like Tseng and Confucius is referred to as a master in The Analects, and he is quoted four times in the first chapter. The Tso Chuan chronicle mentions him under the year 487 as a foot-soldier.28 Thus his education would have been his only claim to fame, since he obviously had no social status.

Confucius catalogued the abilities of some of his major disciples this way: "Those who worked by virtue were Yen Hui, Min Tzu-ch'ien, Jan Keng, and Jan Yung. Those who spoke well were Tsai Yu and Tzu-kung. Those who surpassed in handling public business were Jan Ch'iu and Tzu-lu; in culture and learning, Tzu-yu and Tzu-hsia."29 Tzu-yu is the one we found teaching music in Wu when Confucius criticized him jokingly. When Tzu-yu explained the advantages of educating both gentlemen and common people, Confucius retracted the criticism.30 This could indicate that Tzu-yu had a regular school similar to that of Confucius which was very unique in those times. In another passage Tzu-yu criticizes Tzu-hsia's method of educating, implying a possible competition between their schools.

Tzu-yu said, "Tzu-hsia's disciples and scholars, so long as it is only a matter of sprinkling and sweeping the ground, answering summonses and replying to questions, coming forward and retiring, are all right. But these are minor matters. Set them to anything important, and they would be quite at a loss."

Tzu-hsia, hearing of this, said, "Alas, Yen Yu is wholly mistaken. Of the Way of the gentleman it is said:

If it is transmitted to him before he is ripe
By the time he is ripe, he will weary of it.

Disciples may indeed be compared to plants and trees. They have to be separately treated according to their kinds. In the Way of the gentleman there can be no bluff. It is only the Divine Sage who embraces in himself both the first step and the last."31

In another quotation in The Analects, Tzu-hsia gives his description of an "educated man."32

Apparently there was no single recognized leader after the death of Confucius, but rather several prominent disciples who gathered followings of students who wished to pursue the teachings brought forward by Confucius. Eventually someone must have gathered together from the oral traditions the various conversations which are included in The Analects. Later other books on such subjects as education, the mean, propriety, music, filial piety, etc. were written to enlarge and elaborate the Confucian tradition which continued to grow and flourish. It was Confucius, more than any other person we know of, who gave the impetus and basic philosophy for men of any class to better themselves through learning. Soon Mo Tzu was to develop his own philosophy and gather disciples around him, and of course many teachers followed the philosophy of Confucius. Hsu quotes from a document written in the third century BC which names six men who improved their lives notably through education.

Tzu-chang was from a humble family of Lu; Yen Cho-chu was a robber in Liang-fu. Both studied with Confucius. Tuan-kan Mu was a market broker in Chin; he studied with Tzu-hsia. Kao Ho and Hsien Tzu Shih were both ruffians in Ch'i and both were objects of reproach to their neighbors. They studied with Mo Tzu. So Lu Sheh, a man of the east, was a great dissembler. He studied with Ch'in Hua Li. All of these six should have been the victims of punishment and humiliation, but they escaped these hardships and even became dignitaries who enjoyed good reputations, lived out their years, and were respected by rulers, all because they changed their lives through education.33

It is impossible to measure the overall influence of a man who developed a philosophy which became one of the major religions of the world, touching the fundamental beliefs and principles of a hundred generations of people. Because his conversations were written down, the spirit of Confucius' teachings was passed along from father to child and from teacher to student. The impact of these ideals is such an intangible process that it is very difficult to evaluate how much they influence people's lives. Yet their endurance through history and their dominance in Chinese culture for two dozen centuries gives us an indication of how much they were valued and utilized.

What were the major innovations which Confucius introduced to Chinese culture? Frederick Mote in his Intellectual Foundations of China summarizes what we have thus far described in detail under three chief points. First, Confucius created the role of the professional teacher for adults. Second, he developed not only the content of education but also its methods and ideals. Third, he welcomed students from any social background, thus opening the way for social mobility through education in China.34

Although he may not have magically made every person he contacted immediately wise, there is evidence that in some way his teaching did help some of his students to be more successful in life and to strive for higher ideals of goodness. Not only that, but he set forth guidelines and demonstrated by his own actions and teaching style, what kind of methods might be employed in pursuing wisdom through education. Now that we have presented in as much detail as possible what he did, we must analyze and synthesize these in order to discover the methods we could use today for the learning of wisdom. However, our purpose is to do this by comparing Confucius as an educator to Socrates. Therefore we must next turn to a description of Socrates before we begin our comparative analysis.

1. Analects 7:33.
2. An. 5:21.
3. An. 3:24.
4. An. 6:9.
5. An. 6:5.
6. An. 2:9.
7. An. 9:10.
8. An. 9:19-20.
9. An. 6:2.
10. An. 11:6.
11. An. 5:8.
12. An. 19:25.
13. An. 6:6.
14. An. 11:14.
15. An. 11:12.
16. Creel, Confucius: The Man & the Myth, p. 74.
17. An. 11:16.
18. Creel, Confucius, p. 75.
19. Hsu, Ancient China in Transition, p. 36.
20. An. 11:18.
21. Hsu, Ancient China in Transition, p. 101.
22. Mencius 3A, 4:13.
23. An. 11:17.
24. Mencius 4B, 31:1.
25. An. 19:17-18.
26. Creel, Confucius, p. 82.
27. Mencius 3A, 4:13.
28. Waley, The Analects of Confucius, p. 20.
29. An. 11:2.
30. An. 17:4.
31. An 19:12.
32. An. 1:7.
33. Hsu, Ancient China in Transition, p. 105.
34. Mote, Intellectual Foundations of China, p. 37-39.

Confucius and Confucianism Home page

Copyright 2002-2004 :: Jason Chan
Hosted by Free Hosting Guru