Confucius (551 BC – 479 BC) was a famous Chinese teacher, philosopher and politician, who created the basics of one of the national Chinese philosophies – Confucianism. He was active mainly during the Spring and Autumn period of the Chinese Empire, under the rule of the Eastern Zhou dynasty. Confucius was entirely self-taught and self-motivated. And he justified his mission with the need to re-introduce moral principles and family tradition to the people of China. His line of thought has gone down in history alongside the most well known classic philosophies of the ancient world. Confucianism is also widely practiced today, not in China alone. Here are some facts about this prominent figure of Chinese philosophical thought.
1. Confucius is known by other names.
Confucius family given name was Kong Qiu. However, his courtesy name was Zhongni. Courtesy names, also known as zi, were a typically Asian tradition. Today they are no longer very common, but in times before the May Fourth Movement anti-imperialist political party, zi were quite popular. Once a male turned 20, he was given a courtesy name by one of his teachers at school, as a symbol of respect and one’s adulthood. However, Confucius was and still is better known among his natives either as Kongzi, meaning “Master Kong”, or Kong Fuzi („Grand Master Kong”). The Latin derivative of the name, Confucius, comes from the latter form and was first used by a 16th century Jesuit missionary by the name of Matteo Ricci.
2. Confucius is also known by many honorable titles.
Besides having many proper names, the fame of Confucius was so great that he also earned many honorable titles. Within the „Analects”, a book he co-authored with his other contemporary Chinese intellectuals, which is a collection of sayings and ideas which should instruct the reader on the path of virtue, he is often referred to as “the Master”. In 1 AD, Confucius gained another name posthumously, and it was the “Laudably Declarable Lord Ni”. In 1530, when Confucianism started to be a fascination of the men of Renaissance, he was called the “Extremely Sage Departed Teacher”. Other names for Confucius we encounter in literature are: the “Great Sage”, the “First Teacher” and the “Model Teacher for Ten Thousand Ages”.
3. His parents were an odd couple.
Confucius’ father was Shuliang He. He was a warrior and a man who had many marital arrangements with different women, but all of them failed to produce an heir. When he divorced the last one of his long line of wives, he approached the respectable Yen clan and asked for a hand of one of their daughters. The youngest Yen daughters, Chang-tsai, soon became his wife, and together they had a son – Confucius. Rumor has it, however, that the union was not marital, and the child could even have been conceived non-consensually. However, history has no solid proof for that.
4. Confucius got his education at a school for commoners.
Although Confucius was a member of the ‘shi’, or the knights’ social class, by birthright, he was believed to grow up in an impoverished environment. His birthright still gave him access to knowledge via the public libraries, but he had to work hard on farm and as a bookkeeper and clerk to provide for his family. He married namely very young, at the age of 19, but that did not hinder him in his ongoing quest for knowledge. He took part in gatherings of intellectuals and soon made the choice to become a teacher of the Six Arts, the disciplines most revered and noble for the Chinese people.
5. Confucius believed wholeheartedly in the Six Arts.
In ancient China, the Six Arts were the basis of education for all social classes. The set included: Rites, Music, Archery, Charioteering, Calligraphy and Mathematics. For those of us living outside ancient China, Rites were a discipline devoted to the questions of ethics and social-political issues. They also encompassed learning about traditions. Music preoccupied itself with teaching one to play an instrument such as bowed strings, woodwinds, plucked strings and percussion, either solo or in an orchestra. Archery was the art of shooting a bow, Charioteering was the knowledge of how to drive a horse carriage and Calligraphy was the art of writing in a clear and aesthetic way.
6. The most famous of the Confucian Values is the Golden Rule.
The Golden rule, is nothing more and nothing less than the famously quoted: “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others”. Although it is a basis of many religious and philosophical systems worldwide, the writing down of the Golden Rule is attributed to Confucius. The idea extends to a whole principle of Confucianism called ‘ren’, which loosely translated means „virtue denoting the good feeling a virtuous human experiences when being altruistic”. Ren is the principle objective of every devout follower of Confucianism. It is a special form of reciprocity, which enables humans to grow and become less flawed in their ways.
7. Confucius is the author of influential traditional Chinese classics.
Confucius was not only a brilliant and morally responsible teacher of the Chinese people. He was also a very prolific writer. He believed that his line of thought could be beneficial not only to the average citizen wanting to become wiser, but that it could also transform the highly corrupt ruling system of the Chinese Empire. He is known to have written and edited some of the Chinese classical philosophical works. These include, e.g. the Book of Odes, a revision of the Book of Documents, a historical account of the 12 Dukes of Lu – the so-called Spring and Autumn Annals, Lunyu – a philosophical and political manifesto. Lunyu has also got its English translation, entitled: „The Analects of Confucius”.
8. Confucius was actively involved in Politics.
Confucius had built up a considerable reputation among the ruling families of the Lu province. His teachings earned him the respect of the nobles and he soon became a legit part of the government. In 501 BC, Confucius was offered the position of governor of Lu. And later, he was elected the Minister of Crime. He also took numerous attempts at returning all the legislative power to the ducal family, stripping the rest of the nobles of their privileges. This led to many domestic conflicts, including Hou Fan—the governor of Hou—revolting against the Shu noble family. In the end, Confucius’s attempts were not entirely successful, as the true power of the state was still divided between the ducal family and the nobles.
9. Confucius went into exile in 497 BC, after his ideas for reform had failed.
After Confucius failed to reconcile the noble families striving for political influence, he went into a sort of self-imposed exile. He resigned his Governor post and began a long journey around all of the north-east and central China. On his way, he traveled across the states of Wei, Song, Chen, and Cai. In each and every single one of them he openly professed his political beliefs at law courts, but was never fully understood and his views did not seem to get implemented. Confucius, reluctantly returned home at the age of 68, after he was implored to do so by Ji Kangzi, the Chief Minister of Lu.
10. Confucius stressed the concept of Lǐ.
Li is a concept not entirely explainable to the Western world. It is a vast theory of ethics, basing on three important aspects of life: ceremonies of sacrifice to ancestors and deities, social and political institutions, the savoir-vivre of daily behavior. Confucius was not the inventor of the concept itself, which in the Chinese tradition is said to have originated in Heaven, but he reinforced it repeatedly in his teachings. He also made it seem more earthly, by saying that it is the sage leaders rather than the deities who are responsible for the observation of Lǐ. In the Confucian tradition, Lǐ is defined as „doing the proper thing at the proper time, balancing between maintaining existing norms to perpetuate an ethical social fabric.”
11. Yì is another concept strongly highlighted by Confucianism.
The second basic concept of Confucianism literally means „justice, righteousness, meaning”. It is explained as a „moral disposition to do good, and the intuition and sensibility to do so competently”. In other words, it means having a good judgment of a given situation in moral terms and acting in a good manner, with the welfare of others in mind. It also encompasses the intrinsic satisfaction of a human following this principle of goodness towards others, which makes him a more evolved human being on the path to self-improvement.
12. The era of Confucianism was parallel with the development of Legalism.
Legalism was another philosophical system of beliefs, somewhat contrary to the teachings of Confucius. It is also considered a classical school of the Chinese philosophy. Legalism was introduced by Huang-Lao historian Sima Tan and was very anti-establishment in its nature. It rebelled against upholding the dynastic traditions, which it saw as oppressive to the free thought. Where Confucianism stressed the meaning of family and kinship, Legalism opted for the equal treatment of all human beings, regardless of their roots or social status.
13. Neo-Confucianism was popular in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam until the 19th century.
Neo-Confucianism is a variation on the original line of thought by Confucius, which originated with Han Yu and Li Ao (772-841) in the Tang Dynasty, and secured its position in the time of the Song and Ming dynasties. Neo-Confucianism attempted to create a more secular version of Confucianism, by leaving out all the rules connected with religion and myth, characteristic of the Taoism and Buddhism additions, and only including the secular ones, related to state and ethical matters. Rationalism line of thought tends to list Neo-Confucianism as one of its early influences.
14. Confucius died either at the age of 71 or 72.
The modern day historians are unsure to the one-year difference. However, what we do know is that the great Chinese thinker was buried in the Kong Lin cemetery, situated in the historical part of the Qufu city, Shandong Province. The tomb of Confucius has been built on one of the banks of the Sishui River and originally it had the shape of an ax. It also had an elevated brick platform at the very front for customary offerings from the people visiting the tomb, like sandalwood incense and fruit. Tomb offerings to the notable and kin are an important rite of the Chinese religious and moral doctrine.
15. There are over 3 million Descendants of Confucius today.
Confucius’s family tree, the Kongs, are one of the longest recorded lineages in history today. The youngest Confucian generation is the 83rd in total, which has been recorded since the death of the great philosopher and leader. The Confucius Genealogy Compilation Committee has informed about 2 millions registered descendants and over 1 million possible unregistered heirs of the Confucian lineage. We have news of some part of the Kong family settling in Korea, whereas another part of the noble house married into Muslim families and their descendants now live all throughout the Asian continent. There was even a scholarly enterprise carried out in 2013 by the Fudan University to establish just how many Chinese families bore the Confucian DNA. Women are now also included in the official records.