(551 BCE - 479 BCE)
His Early Life
The great Chinese philosopher, Confucius, is often credited as the founder of a religion — but this description is inaccurate. He actively avoided making references to a God or any Deity, and there was no promise of reward in heaven. He was only interested in personal and political morality, understanding it and LIVING it.
Confucius (a westernized version of his Chinese name “Kong Fuzi”) was born in poverty, in a cave.
What we know about him comes from a slim collection of sayings and anecdotes called “The Analects of Confucius” compiled by his followers soon after his death. It appears his father and mother never married, he, being a soldier or minister in the service of a powerful ruling family, and she a peasant girl who devoted herself to caring for her small family.
At fifteen, Confucius “set his mind on learning.” He started with the history of China, which has records going back to the Zhou dynasty of 1027 BCE. He was particularly taken with the specific period when the Duke of Zhou governed in a very concerned and selfless way.
Now, as he looked around, corruption was everywhere. Rulers did what they like and even tested new weapons on their own servants. Their soldiers moved around and simply took what they wanted, killing thousands as they went.
Confucius’s first job was counting grain in a granary, a lowly skill, but it did allow him to travel. On his travels, he found a book called “The Book of Poems” which opened him to the realization that the secret of life was to “Think No Evil.”
CONFUCIUS AS TEACHER
He was never fooled by elegant speech or honeyed words spoken merely to advance the speaker. He said “Clever talk and affected manners are seldom signs of goodness.” His honesty and bluntness undoubtedly hampered his chances of promotion and although he held some fairly senior political positions, he was never a great political success. His strength was as a teacher.
He started teaching in his mid-twenties. He demanded of his students that they be hungry for knowledge. If they did not bubble with interest, he wasted no more of his time. The perfect example for him of how to govern and live one’s life was the Duke of Zhou. He called this “The Way’. Characteristics of “The Way” were good manners, good behavior, unselfishness, caring, wisdom and courage.
This was by no means a popular route, especially for those who wanted to advance their wealth or careers, but there were a number of students who gave up everything to follow him. One of them was a poor and sickly peasant named Yan Hui. Many of Confucius’s students were smart, well spoken and confident, yet they had trouble actually living the unselfish life he spoke about. Yan Hui on the other hand, spoke little, but changed his life in harmony with his learning. Confucius saw the truth about the meek peasant. “I can talk all day to Yan Hui — he never raises any objection, and he looks stupid” said Confucius, “Yet observe him when he is on his own: his actions reflect what he learned. Oh no, Hui is not stupid.”
FORCED TO MOVE
Confucius was never afraid to criticize bad government, which forced him to move from one state to another.
For many years he and his followers almost starved to death but he stuck to his guns, teaching as he went and keeping up the spirits of his followers.
Finally, after more than 13 years, he returned home at the invitation of a local official. Myth has it that messengers came with 80 golden chariots to fetch him, but in fact, he rode beside one of his disciples in a creaking one-horse carriage.
Now, in his late sixties, Confucius was employed in governing again. “To learn something and then put it into practice at the right time; is this not a joy?”
Confucius was nearing the end of his life and when he died aged 72, his disciples, while first mourning, started formulating what became known as Confucianism. A hundred years later, Mencius (372-289 BCE), the greatest of all Confucianists, developed his political teachings, declaring among other guidelines, that people had the right to overthrow an unjust ruler.
In 213 BCE hundreds of Confucianists paid with their lives for speaking out, including 400 Confucian scholars who were buried alive.
Then the fabulous Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) arrived and, by 136 BCE, Confucianism was elevated to the rank of official religion. From then until the early 1900’s all civil servants had first to pass an examination largely based on the teachings of Confucius.
Confucianism stressed the obligations of individuals rather than their rights and for two thousand years China was probably, on average, the best-governed region on earth.
Over the years, there were government attempts to reduce the influence of Confucius, one of the strongest being the most recent Communist repression of his teaching. In 1949 Mao Zedong led China down a new path. He had always hated Confucius’s teachings and in the 1960’s he called for a “Cultural Revolution.” Young members of the Communist party known as “Red Guards,” roamed the land in lawless, wolf-like packs. They burned books, humiliated and tortured scholars and teachers. They also leveled Confucius’s tomb monument, but the people of the village gathered the broken stones and hid them in their houses. When the Cultural Revolution finally ended, the stones were taken out of hiding and the monument was re-built.
As this is being written (2001) the Communist party in China is slowly allowing Confucianism to re-emerge.
When asked about his private wishes, Confucius had said to his disciples, “I wish the old may enjoy peace, friends may enjoy trust and the young may enjoy affection.”
SOME OF THE SAYINGS OF CONFUCIUS
“He, who exercises government by means of his virtue, may be compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place and all the stars turn towards it.”
“Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous.”
“Good government obtains when those who are near are made happy,
and those who are far off are attracted.”
“Recompense injury with justice, and recompense kindness with kindness.”
“The superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions.”
“If a man take no thought about what is distant, he will find sorrow near at hand.”
“What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”
“What the superior man seeks is in himself. What the mean man seeks is in others.”
“By nature, men are nearly alike; by practice, they get to be wide apart.”
“Virtue is not left to stand alone. He who practices it will have neighbors.”
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