On Confucius and Confucianism

After suffering a century of bad raps from the Western scholars, Chinese reformists and communists, Confucius (or Kongzi  孔子, traditionally believed 551-479 BCE) is now back in the seat of the Sage of Chinese cultural tradition. Considering that the people of the Confucian cultural sphere have sought moral guidance in his teaching for centuries, it seems only natural that the contemporary Chinese are starting to seek self-identification through Confucius. Because of the sheer number of people who lived and died according to his teaching, Confucius counts as a, if not the, most influential thinker in the world history. And this influential thinker's philosophy is centered upon the faith in common humanity and love for fellow humans (ren).

So, who was Confucius and what did he teach? This seemingly simple question is as complicated and who Jesus Christ was and what he taught (which is much more complicated than your Sunday school teacher might tell you.)  

Numerous articles and books have been written, debating minute details of Confucius’ life. Here, it would suffice to cover how Confucius himself described his life. In his old age, Confucius reflected on his life and summarized it with these words. "At fifteen, I had my mind set on learning. At thirty, I stood firm. At forty, I had no doubts. At fifty, I knew the command of Heaven. At sixty, I leaned to listen to others. At seventy, I could follow my heart’s desire, without straying from the right path." (Analects 2:4)


Confucius lived toward the end of the Spring and Autumn period (722 BCE–481 BCE) where, as told in "The Disciple",  the ruling Zhou dynasty’s power had waned, and small states were fighting and annexing each other. Confucius’ early life is not well documented. What is commonly believed is that Confucius was born in the Dukedom of Lu to an impoverished but old aristocratic family. He lost his father early, and grew up in poverty with his mother. Some argue that he was an illegitimate son, and that was why he grew up without knowing the father. From the age of fifteen—which is a couple of years later than the wealthy families customarily started the education of their sons—, Confucius received the aristocratic education which prepared men for  public service. (“At fifteen, I had my mind set on learning.”)  (The traditional Chinese age counting system made the age a few years older than the Western system of counting. Every new born baby was considered one year old, and everyone aged a year on the lunar New Year’s Day. So a baby who was born in lunar December was counted as two years old when they were less than a month old.) His mother is said to have died when he was 17.


  Confucius said, "My family was poor when I was young so I had to learn many worldly skills." (Analects 9:6). He also said, "In poverty, it is difficult not to be envious. It is easy not to be arrogant when rich."(Analects 14:11) He must have experienced some envy when young and poor. He hated the idle rich so much that he even said, "What can you do with a man who does nothing but eat and drink all day, without ever using his mind. It is better to be gambling. He is at least using his mind" (Analects 17:22), although, of course,  in general, he disapproved distractions such as gambling, chess, wine, and women. By thirty, he finished studying, got married, and established himself as a teacher. (“At thirty, I stood firm.”) He is known to have had a son and at least one daughter. 

In his thirties, he worked as a lower-ranking official in the Dukedom of Lu. When Duke Zhao of Lu lost his political struggle against powerful ministers and sought refuge in the Dukedom of Qi, Confucius accompanied the Duke. The Dukedom of Qi was relatively powerful, and its capital Linzi was not only one of the largest cities of China but also a cultural center. Confucius encountered a refined culture in Qi. He said when he heard music at the Qi court, he was so moved by its beauty that he did not even recognize the flavors of meat for three months. (Analects 7:13) After Duke Zhao’s death in Qi, Confucius returned to Lu to open a school. This is the time frame when Zilu met Confucius, some time before Confucius became fully confident of his Heaven-given mission to revive the Chinese culture to its rightful glory. (“At forty, I had no doubts.”)


When he was about fifty, Confucius was employed as a court official of Lu. “At fifty, I knew the command of Heaven,” reflects Confucius’ aspiration to bring about a positive political change. As told in "The Disciple",  he worked as a governor and later rose to the rank of Minister of Law. But his rise to eminence led to conflicts with other ministers. “At sixty, I learned to listen to others” implies that, even though he was stubborn—as with the case with most idealists—and even seemed arrogant to some, he learned to listen to his opponents too. After Confucius left the position, he and his students left Lu in search of employment in another state. Confucius spent the next decade as a wandering scholar, welcomed as a wise counselor by many dukes and kings, but not offered employment. Zilu followed him most of these wandering years. Confucius finally returned to his home of Lu, and devoted the rest of his life in teaching students and editing the classics and music. Confucius is also believed to have compiled the history book Annals of Spring and Autumn. Confucius explained his state of mind at this stage of life as “At seventy, I could follow my heart’s  desire, without straying from the right path."  Confucius passed away at the mature age of 74.


Confucius lived in the pre-paper society. Written records are made on shaved bamboo or wood sheets, or engraved in metal or stone. They were bulky, cumbersome to handle, and expensive, so the use was restricted. Though in his last years he worked in editing the classics and is believed to have compiled the Annals of Spring and Autumn, Confucius did not write down his words recorded in the Analects. His words were originally transmitted orally among his students, and written down only after Confucius’ death. In that sense, the Analects is like the four Gospels. Atsushi Nakajima's  handling of Confucius, telling his life through a student's eyes, seems very appropriate; that is the only way we know Confucius.  


Confucius is a little like Socrates (c. 469–399 BCE). They both tried to enlighten people through conversations. Both had mixed receptions in their times. Neither of them had a happy marriage since they were anything but regular, normal husbands. (I personally do not wish to be a wife or daughter of men like Confucius and Socrates; their sister or mother may be alright.) The authority forced Socrates to swallow hemlock. Confucius  never got to implement his ambition of empire-wide political reform. Such failures in their lifetime, however, did not harm their reputations, because their students spread the admiring words about their masters. Socrates' student Plato (424/423–348/347 BCE) and Xenophon (c. 430–354 BCE) transmitted their teacher's words to the next generationsConfucius' students did the same by compiling the Analects.


Though the later generations call him a sage, even a saint, Confucius did not regard himself a sage or saint but a junzi (君子 man/men of great virtue; also called daren 大人). Junzi are neither perfect nor infallible. They make mistakes. What distinguishes junzi as the men of virtue is that they keep learning, even under unfavorable circumstances, to better themselves and to better the human world. Confucius never gave up on this human world. As Zilu says in "The Disciple", his wisdom was in not despairing in the face of difficulty, never despising the realty, and do the best within the confine of what was available. 

Confucius regarded the legendary ancient emperors  Yao and Shun as saints. (We will meet these ancient emperors in Creation of Lesser Gods and The Journey to the West.) Though he did not regard himself to have achieved their level, Confucius believed that he could restore the glory of the early Zhou dynasty by replacing the aristocracy based on bloodline with an intellectual meritocracy where junzi, such as himself, would guide the government.

Confucius emphasized the importance of learning as the best way to cultivate desirable qualities in men. Confucius recommended to learn the classical subjects such as divination, poetry, history, music, and rituals and manners. However, he also said, “If one can recite all three hundred poems and yet fails to perform effectively in official capacity, or is unable to act independently in distant places, then what good is mastering poems?” (Analects 13:5) Learning is not to be pursued for its own sake. Learning’s importance resides in its power to make a man, regardless of his lineage, into a junzi whose humanity and virtuous behavior would enhance the human society.  When he praised Zilu for governing Bo well in "The Disciple", Confucius attributed good governance to Zilu's  moral qualities. The belief that the moral order of the society can be achieved through individuals’ moral self-cultivation has been a core concept in the Confucian tradition.

In his focus on politics and society, Confucius makes an interesting comparison to Aristotle (384BCE–822 BCE). Aristotle, a student of Plato, was the founder of his own school of philosophy, which became the foundation of many branches of sciences in the Western tradition. (For example, Aristotle’s classification of flora and fauna was in use until Carl von Linne (1707–1778) reclassified them.). Aristotle considered politics as science that studies the supreme good for men. In his view, politics strives to attain good not merely for one man, but also for the entire nation or for city-states. (Nicomachean Ethics 1: 2). Aristotle’s ideal “great-souled men” (phronimos) cultivate virtue, which is a disposition for good; virtue is a perpetual inclination to act for good even when not acting at all.

While this cultivation is similar to what Confucius promotes, Aristotle’s ideal men, who are guided by abstract reason rather than love, seem more self-contained than Confucian’s junzi. Confucius says:”It is only a junzi who can love, or who can hate, others."(Analects 4: 3). Only junzi can decipher a man’s deposition, and, therefore, can love those with disposition for good and hate those for bad. Confucius' passion is manifest in the episode where he reprimanded the Duke of Qi and his ministers for lack of manners, as told in "The Disciple".  In contrast, Aristotle’s great-souled men seem to be incapable of such love and hate. The social theorist Alisdair MacIntyre observes:” For the love of person, as against goodness, pleasantness, or usefulness of the person, Aristotle can have no place.”


Confucius' passion for this human world led him to take a noncommittal attitude towards questions like the existence of soul after death. Though he had no qualms with the accepted traditional veneration of ancestors and Heaven, Confucius was of the opinion that people should invest their energy in reforming this world (about which we can do something), not in speculating about the things outside of this world (of which we have no control). Confucius said, "A junzi does not talk about mysterious happenings, spirits, disorder, and spiritual beings. ” (Analects 7: 2o)


On the other hand, Confucius firmly believed in the higher overreaching power of Heaven and dao. When Confucius  got very sick, Zilu said he would pray to Heaven for his recovery. Confucius replied that there was no need since he had been praying for a long time. (Analects 7:24) This Confucian intellectual's Heaven is not another world where the righteous ones go after death. It is also different from Plato’s concept of the never changing world of Forms (idea), of which the ever-changing human world is nothing but imperfect reflection. Heaven is the universe's principle which dictates the way (dao) beings on earth ought to live. Heaven and earth interact with each other. If dao does not prevail on earth, Heaven may not grant enough rain and sunshine on earth. Heaven and earth’s never-ending action and reactions are what make the universe. (As we will see plenty of examples in the novels we review, common people do not take such abstract view of Heaven.)


Heaven’s dao is revealed in the workings of the world, not with revealed words of God. Lack of written revelation made divination, which is an attempt to decipher Heaven’s will, an important part of Chinese culture. People sometimes got carried away and trapped in the minute details of speculative divination. Confucius saw no good in overzealous pursuit of divination. Heaven’s principle is already revealed in the way the world exists. What junzi needs to do is to study this world to understand dao, and try to make the human world closer to dao by improving one’s moral qualities. The guiding principle in understanding dao is ren, which is love for fellow humans, and li ( rituals and manners), which defines the proper form to express ren.


Confucius’ emphasis on li based on Zhou Li (Rites of Zhou) may seem a little strange. How can the ancient Zhou etiquette be of any relevance to us? Confucius, however, regarded li in much the same way as Miss Manners (Judith Martin) regards manners. Confucius saw manners as the best method to ensure the society remains civil. Neither Confucius nor Miss Manners advocate strict adherence to the traditional etiquette. Modifications are necessary in accordance with societal changes and new inventions. Miss Manner can solve the issues of cell phone and e-mail etiquette by using older customs as the guidance. In a similar way, Confucius also approved modification of manners: “The use of hemp cap is prescribed in the observation of li. Nowadays, a silk cap is used instead for the sake of frugality. I would follow this accepted practice. A subject kowtowing entering the hall is prescribed in the observation of li. Nowadays, a subject kowtows only after ascending the hall, which is hubris. Although it is contrary to the accepted practice, I still kowtow upon entering the hall.” (Analects 9:2) What must be maintained are not the forms but the principle of ensuring civility.


Confucius’ focus on this human world has left a strong mark in the Confucian tradition. In the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions, people base their morality on the revealed words of God. In the Confucian tradition, people base their morality upon the idea of dao and ren. As ren manifests only through human interactions, Confucians place a premium on the fellow Confucians’ opinions and judgments. When Zilu asked what kind of person he would like to be, Confucius said, "I want to be relied upon by the elderly, to be trusted by friends, and loved by the young." (Analects 5:25)  This deceptively simple statement shows how much Confucius valued human relationships.

Confucian intellectuals strive to be recognized as junzi not only by their contemporaries, but also to be remembered and understood by the future generations of junzi. They have a faith in the community of Confucians who would understand and appreciate each other across time and space, and wish to “leave the name for a thousand years.” Leaving the name means being remembered and appreciated by the current and future generations, to become a part of the public memory and remembered history, and, therefore, become immortal. Confucius lived believing in later generations who would understand him. And after centuries in relative obscurity, Confucius' teachings achieved the status of state philosophy  in the Han dynasty era (206 BCE-8 CE) to become immortalized.

This focus on the human society makes Confucian morality seem somehow superficial to the follower of the revealed religions. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s definition of Japanese culture is a prime example. In The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), she famously described Japanese culture as that of shame, and the Western culture, that of guilt. She contended that shame-based behavior involves the satisfaction of externally institutionalized social requirements, and that, unlike in the case of guilt, no inner principle“one’s own picture of oneself”is needed.


This distinction is still widely accepted, despite its obvious shortcomings. Western psychological researches have found shame and guilt very different concepts from what Benedict describes. Shame is “an acutely painful emotion that is typically accompanied by a sense of ‘shrinking’ or ‘smallness,’ and by a sense of worthlessness and powerlessness. Although shame does not necessarily involve the presence of an actual observing audience to witness one’s shortcomings, imagery of ‘self-talk’ of one’s defensive self would appear to others is often present….Guilt, in contrast, is typically a less painful, devastating experience because the focus is on the specific behavior, not the entire self.” Shame, thus, requires as much the sense of the self as guilt.


Benedict primarily studied American Indian culture and was not familiar with Confucian culture. With the war against Japan on, Benedict and her anthropologist colleagues were given the task of describing “patterns of Japanese culture” by behavioral observations. Because of the wartime situations, Benedict and her colleagues could not perform their own observations, and had to rely on the existing reports. Such layers of different observers’ subjectivity could not help but cause some distortion in their final interpretations. Benedict’s and her colleagues could not penetrate into the deeper context of Japanese mind.


Shame, as understood by Confucian intellectuals, does not mean the failure to satisfy externally institutionalized social requirements. Confucius said, “If the people are led by laws and reigned in by punishment, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame. If they are led by virtue and rein in by the rules of morality, they will not only have the sense of shame but also become good.”(Analects 2:3) Shame, then, is far from the mere satisfaction of externally institutionalized social requirements, but the propelling inner force for man to strive to become good. 


Mencius (孟子 c.372 BCE-289BCE), the Second Sage of Confucianism, also emphasized the importance of shame as one of the principles to propel a man toward good. He said, “The feeling of compassion is the principle of ren. The feeling of shame and dislike is the principle of righteousness (yi).” (Mencius 2:1:6) Shame in the Confucian tradition is, thus, far from being mere satisfaction of externally institutionalized social requirements, but the inner principle that propels humans toward good.


The violation of moral code is measured against different criteria in the Confucian tradition and in the Judeo-Christian traditions. The Confucian sense of shame is determined not in relation to the God, but in relation to the Heaven and dao. Regardless of the difference of the criteria, having moral code in both traditions requires the inner awareness and discipline. In The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen (2010),  philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah draws attention to the power of honor code as the strong inner moral guidance in different cultures. Philosopher Herbert Fingarette asserts that it would be a basic error to “assume that shame is concerned with ‘mere appearances’ rather than moral realities.  The Confucian concept of shame is a genuinely moral concept but it is oriented to morality as centering on li, traditionally ceremonially defined social component, rather than inner core of one’s being, ‘the self’.” The fact that Confucian morality is not based on the written revelation of the God’s words is no reason to deny its validity or spiritual depth.


Confucianism in its ideal form is a meritocracy based upon individuals’ moral virtue. This meritocracy presupposes not only individual differences but also fitting places for different individuals inside the society. People attain different degrees of virtue,  which manifest differently according to the individuals’ personalities and situations. Herbert Fingarette poetically described the Confucian devotion to being human as “the secular as the sacred.” With love for fellow humans and faith in being human as its moral foundation, Confucianism constitutes, at its ideal best, what  may be called the religion of being  human.


A Thought on Confucius' Views on Women

It is often said that Confucianism is sexist. Was Confucius a sexist?          

The most famous (or infamous) saying of Confucius about women is "Shaoren and girls are difficult to handle. If you get familiar with themthey cease to be humble. If you keep them away, they get resentful.” (Analects 17:25) This sure sounds insulting to women. However, some argue that the word used for girls (女子) mean not women in general, but petty women, the female counter part of shaoren. (The female counterpart of junzi is furen , i.e., lady.)  If this is the case, there is no sexism.


Well-known sexist commandments such as “Since the age of seven, men and women should not share a room or food” and “When young, a woman should obey the father, when married, the husband, when old, the son” are creations of later generation of Confucian scholars. They were not Confucius' own words. 


 It seems to me Confucius was more wary of women than a sexist, which is understandable because his efforts to influence dukes and kings were often foiled by women’s influence, as we have seen in “The Disciple”.  Though Confucian scholars did develop a sexist tendency since the Tang dynasty era (618-907),  this had more to do with their own pettiness than with Confucius' philosophy.


There is an interesting anecdote about the Second Sage of Confucianism Mencius where his mother is reported to have chided the grown-up Mencius for his moral failings. Mencius' mother is the most famous education-minded mother in Chinese history. Her education-mindedness, which is credited to have made her son the Second Sage of Confucianism, is commemorated in the idiom, “Mencius’ Mother’s Three Residences.”At first, Mencius’ family lived near a cemetery.  Young Mencius took interest in reenacting funeral ceremonies he saw.  His mother decided it was no place for her son to grow up.  They moved to a house in the market place.  The boy started play-acting merchants and customers.  His mother decided to move again and found a house close to a school.  Young Mencius started to imitate and recite the teachers’ readings he overheard from the school.  The mother was finally satisfied and settled down. 

Mencius' mother remained education-minded even after Mencius reached the adulthood.  One hot summer day, Mencius’ wife was letting herself cool down in her room by relaxing her clothes. Mencius happened to enter the room, found his wife dressed less than formal, and got greatly displeased. The wife noticed his displeasure, went to Mencius’ mother, and asked to be allowed to go back to her own mother, because Mencius treated her like a stranger rather than his wife. The mother summoned Mencius and told him, “The etiquette requires you call before you entering the gate and knock before opening the door, to let the person inside know that you are coming. When you go through the entrance, you lower your gaze so as not to catch someone in a moment of inattention. You entered the room without knocking. Who are you to complain about others' lack of etiquette when you yourself did not bother to observe it?” Mencius could not come up with a good reply.

               The Second Sage of Confucianism had a wife and mother who could shut him up.  Does this not prove that real  junzi would not be a sexist?



論語 (The Analects)

James Legge, trans, The Analects of Confucius, the Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean 
(New York: Dover Publications, 1971).

Simon Leys, trans, The Analects of Confucius (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997).

D.C. Lau, trans, The Analects (New York: Penguin, 1979).

Roger T. Ames and Henry Rosemont, Jr., trans, The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation (New York: The Ballatine Books, 1998).

Arthur Walley, trans, The Analects (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2000).

Michel Nylan & Thomas Wilson, Lives of Confucius: Civilization’s Greatest Sage Though the Ages  (New York/ London: Double Day, 2010)

Shigeki Kaizuka, Confucius: His Life and Thought (New York: Macmillan, 1956).

Shinji Komada, Rongo: Sono Uraomote (The Analects and Its Different Faces) (Tokyo: Tokuma Shobou, 1989).

Philip J. Ivanhoe, Confucian Moral Self Cultivation, second edition (Indianapolis/ Cambridge: Harckett Publishing Co., 2000).

Alasdair MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics (London: Scribner, 1968. (The quote is from p.80.)

June Price Tangney and Jeff Stuewig, “A Moral-Emotional Perspective on Evil Persons and Evil Deeds,” in The Social Psychology of Good and Evil, ed.  Arthur Miller (New York: The Guilford Press, 2004), p. 327–355. (The quote on guilt and shame is from p.328).

Takie S. Lebra, “The Social Mechanism of Guilt and Shame,” American Anthropological Quarterly, 44 (1971), p.241-54.

Herbert Fingarette, Confucius:The Secular as Sacred (New York: Harper & Row, 1972). (The quote is from  p.30.)

Ei Muramatsu, Chugoku Retsujo Denn (Dragon Ladies of China) (Tokyo: Chuo Koron-sha, 1968).