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
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
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
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
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.