With China’s most influential philosopher Confucius due to celebrate his 2,567th birthday, a summary of history may enlighten us in sight of the momentous day. Although there continues to be scholarly debate as to the events that took place, such as whether he became a governor, the following is the standard account.
Confucius was born in Zou, Lu state (near present-day Qufu) on the 28th of September, 551 BC during the Zhou Dynasty (1045 – 255BC). Confucius was a sage, scholar and philosopher whose thoughts and teachings have become the foundation of a system known as Confucianism. This philosophy has profoundly influenced Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Japanese thoughts and life.
The Latinised name Confucius, based on the honorific title Kong Fuzi (K’ung Fu-tzu), was created by 16th-century Jesuit missionaries in China. Confucius was born into an aristocratic family who had lost their wealth and position. His father died when Confucius was only three years old. Instructed first by his mother, Confucius then distinguished himself as a passionate learner in his teens. He had served in minor government posts managing stables and keeping books for granaries before he married a woman of similar background when he was 19, later fathering 3 children. Confucius’ mastery of the six arts and his familiarity with poetry and history enabled him to start a school and brilliant teaching career in his 30’s. His teachings included humaneness towards others, ritual, etiquette, love of parents for their children, and of children for their parents. An emphasis was placed on self-cultivation and skilled judgement, rather than knowledge of rules.
During his lifetime Confucius developed concepts about education, society and government that he hoped to put into practice in a political career. By the age of 50 he may have become a governor. At 56, when he realised that his superiors were uninterested in his policies (feeding the poor at the expense of the state), Confucius left the country in an attempt to find another feudal state to which he could render his service.
Despite his political frustration he was accompanied by an expanding circle of students during this self-imposed exile of almost 12 years. His reputation as a man of vision and mission spread. At the age of 67 Confucius returned home to teach and to preserve his cherished classical traditions by writing and editing. He died in 479 BC, at the age of 73.
Confucius’ teachings were later turned into an elaborate set of rules and practices by his numerous disciples and followers, who organised his teachings into the Analects. Confucius’ disciples and his only grandson, Zisi, continued his philosophical school after his death. These efforts spread Confucian ideals to students who then became officials in many of the royal courts in China, thereby giving Confucianism the first wide-scale test of its dogma.
In the Analects (2:4), Confucius is recorded as summarising his life this way:
At 15 I set my heart on learning; at 30 I firmly took my stand; at 40 I had no delusions; at 50 I knew the Mandate of Heaven; at 60 my ear was attuned; at 70 I followed my heart’s desire without overstepping the boundaries of right.