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Engraving of Confucius
Chinese family name
Ancestral name:
(Pinyin: Zǐ)
Chinese family name
Clan name:
(Pinyin: Kǒng)
Chinese given name
Given name:
(Pinyin: Qiū)
Chinese courtesy name
Courtesy name:
(Pinyin: Zhòngní)
Posthumous name:
The Ultimate Sage
Master of Yore²
(Ch: )
(Py: Zhìshèng Xiānshī)
(manner of address):
Master Kong³
less frequently
Py: Kǒngzǐ,
less fr. Kǒngfūzǐ;
Wade-Giles: K'ung-tzu,
less fr. K'ung Fu-tzu
1The Chinese word for the ancestral name of
Confucius, should not be confused with the word
"master" as used in the style of Confucius "Master
Kong." These are two different words written
with the same character in Chinese. Zi was the
surname of the ruling family of Shang.
2 Posthumous name since 1530C.E. Between 1307C.E.
and 1530C.E., his posthumous name was: "The Lord
of Culture Ultimate Sage and Great
Accomplisher" which is
the name on his tomb.
3 Romanised as "Confucius."

Confucius (Kong Fuzi or K'ung-fu-tzu, lit. "Master Kong") (traditionally September 28, 551 B.C.E. – 479 B.C.E.) is one of the world's foremost exemplary teachers, whose teachings and philosophy have deeply influenced East Asian life and thought. At times a controversial figure in Chinese history, his legacy informs what became known as Confucianism, regarded by some as a philosophical outlook on life, by others as an ethical system, and by still others as a religion. The deep-rootedness of Confucian morality in the people of East Asia is said by some to be the driving force behind the region's spectacular economic growth in recent years.

Confucius taught personal and public morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity. These values gained prominence in China over other doctrines, such as Legalism and Daoism during the Han Dynasty. Confucius's ideas were developed into a system of philosophy known as in the West as Confucianism that later spread to Korea and Japan. It was introduced to Europe by the Jesuit Matteo Ricci, who was the first to Latinize the name as "Confucius."


His teachings are known primarily through the Analects, a short collection of his discussions with his disciples, which was compiled posthumously. Alongside the Buddha, Socrates, Jesus, Mahavira from the ancient world, Confucius has been one of the most influential thinkers, and his whole teaching called for humane conduct. Asked to define “humaneness,” he said “love your fellow man” (Analects, 12:22).

Confucius was active during the fifth century B.C.E., the period that philosopher Karl Jaspers termed the Axial Age. He suggested that at this time, the foundations of moral and ethical values were being made known to humanity through the great sages as the human race entered a more enlightened stage of historical development.

Personal life

At 15, I set my heart on learning;
At 30, I took my stand;
At 40, I no longer had doubts;
At 50, I knew the will of the heavens;
At 60, my ear was attuned;
At 70, I follow all the desires of my heart without breaking any rule.
(Analects 2:4, following translation by James Legge)

In this brief autobiographical summary, Confucius articulated what was to become the core educational philosophy of East Asian culture: personal initiative, common commitment to the cultural heritage, appreciation of spiritual awareness, life-long learning and self-cultivation.

According to tradition, Confucius was born in 551 B.C.E. in Qufu, which was located in the Chinese State of Lu (now part of present-day Shandong Province), during the Spring and Autumn Period, at the beginning of the philosophical watershed known as the Hundred Schools of Thought.

Confucius was born into a deposed noble family which had recently fled from the State of Song. His father had been a magistrate and a warrior. Later stories of portents of future significance surround his birth, as they do around that of Buddha, Krishna, Jesus and other great religious figures. According to Han dynasty sources, a unicorn appeared with a piece of jade in its mouth and announced that a child as “pure as crystal would be born” who would become a “king without a kingdom” (that is, a person of exemplary royal character fit to reign benevolently over all the people, but who would not be recognized as such during his lifetime).[1]

The Records of the Grand Historian, compiled some four hundred years after Confucius' time, indicate that Confucius was conceived out of wedlock. His father was seventy, and his mother only fifteen at his birth. His father died when he was three, and he was brought up in poverty by his mother. His social ascendancy links him to the growing class of Shì, a class between the old nobility and the common people. This class later became the prominent class of literati because of the cultural and intellectual skills they shared. Some have claimed a duke of Zhou as one of Confucius' ancestors.

As a child, he was said to have enjoyed putting ritual vases on the sacrifice table. As a young man, he was a minor administrative manager in the State of Lu and may have risen to the position of justice minister. After several years he resigned because he disapproved of the politics of his prince. Around age fifty, seeing no way to improve the government, he gave up his political career in Lu, and began a 12-year journey around China. He spent some time in Wei and may have become the world's first professional teacher during this period of travel. He sought the "Way," which for him was the answer to such questions as how rulers should rule, and how should people behave in society, particularly towards family, friends, and rulers.

According to tradition, the state of Lu was doing economically very well because of Confucius, so much so that its neighbor the state of Qi was worried that it would become the supreme state and Qi would be the first to be conquered. They then decided to sabotage Lu's reforms by sending one hundred horses and eighty beauties to the ruler of Lu. The ruler of Lu then indulged himself in pleasure-seeking and did not attend to any official duties for three days. At the sacrificial rites he did not give the counselors the meat in accordance with the rites. By then, Confucius had done all he could to bring Lu to its height and decided to leave.

Confucius hated disorder and disunity and wanted to find ways to overcome the inter-family feuds that characterized the Spring and Autumn period. He admired King Wen, founder of the Zhou dynasty, and his nephew the duke of Zhou. Confucius thus valued continuity and wanted to sustain China's ancient traditions (see Analects 7:1). He tried unsuccessfully to convince many different rulers to put his social and political beliefs into practice.

When he was about 60 year old, he returned home and spent the last years of his life teaching an increasing number of disciples, by sharing his experiences with them and transmitting the old wisdom via a set of books called the Six Classics: the Documents, the Odes, the Book of Change, the Book of Rites, the Book of Music, and the Spring and Autumn Annals.

Confucius's descendants were repeatedly identified and honored by successive imperial governments. They were honored with the rank of a marquis 35 times since Gaozu of the Han Dynasty, and they were promoted to the rank of duke 42 times from the Tang Dynasty to 1935. One of the most common titles is Duke Yansheng, which means "overflowing with sainthood."


In the Analects, Confucius presents himself as a "transmitter and not an inventor." He put the greatest emphasis on the importance of study, and the Chinese character for study opens the text. In this respect, he is seen by Chinese people as the greatest master. Far from trying to build a systematic theory of life and society, he wanted his disciples to think deeply for themselves and relentlessly study the outside world, mostly through the old scriptures and by relating present situations to past political events (as in the Annals) or past feelings of common people (as in the Book of Odes). Confucius' definition of the prerequisite for being a teacher is the ability to "review the past and recognize the new" (see Analects).

In times of division, chaos, and endless wars between feudal states, he wanted to restore the Mandate of Heaven that could unify the "world" and bestow peace and prosperity on the people. Therefore, Confucius is often considered a great proponent of conservatism, but a closer look at what he proposes often shows that he made use of past institutions and rites to push a new political agenda of his own:

  • rulers to be chosen on merit, not parentage, rulers who were devoted to their people, and rulers who reached for perfection. Such a ruler would spread his own virtues to the people instead of imposing proper behavior with laws and rules. Rulers should lead by example, not by coercion or by enforcing their edicts with threats.
  • Thus, "Just desire the good yourself and the common people will be good." (Analects 12:19).
  • "Guide them by virtue … and they will reform themselves." (11:3).
  • Coercion never works: "If a man is correct in his own person [others] … will obey without orders being given." If he is not correct, "there will be no obedience even though orders are given" (13:6).

Above all, he wanted order in society. He believed that a polite society, one that consisted of true gentlemen and women, would also be an orderly one. Universal politeness would banish hatred and conflict. He therefore taught that everyone should cultivate the characteristics of a junzi (gentleperson). This involves inner as well as external character. Basically, a junzi is compassionate, humane and benevolent (ren). The concept of benevolence is central to Confucius' teaching, and can best be understood as being humane.

  • "True benevelonce must be practiced as a good in itself, not in order to attract a reward" (4:3-4).
  • "Benevolence is love of others" (12:22).
  • "When the prince is benevolent, everyone will be benevolent." (Mencius 4:5).

Confucius believed that society functions best when all members know, and perform their appropriate role. The analogy of an orchestra has often been cited—only when all instruments play in tune and at the right moment is music created. Also, if a drum tries to sound (do the job of) a horn, discord follows. A gentle person would be a rounded person, with an appreciation of music, art, literature and of history. Such people, by taking their proper station in life out of consideration for others, will make society function in harmony.

Role of the Family

Confucius believed that the family provides a model for the ideal functioning of society. Just as in the family, authority is exercised with love and responsibility, so it should be exercised within the state. Confucius characterized five types of relationships—between parents and children, between ruler and subjects, between husband and wife, between elder and younger siblings, and between friends—three of these are within the family. He championed strong familial loyalty, respect of elders by their children and of husbands by their wives; and the family when extended becomes the basis for an ideal government. Through mastering the proper norms of human relationships, the family—and the nation—would function in harmony and unity.

Confucianism can be seen as authorizing the centralized authority of the ruler, by analogy to the authority of the father in the family. However, positions are subordinate to the relationships within which they exist. A father is only a father by virtue of children who love and respect him. The position of father will be honored when he demonstrates benevolence to his children, protects and loves his wife, and takes responsibility for the family's welfare. Likewise, a king can rule well when he protects his subjects and takes responsibility for the nation's welfare. Therefore, a king should receive training to cultivate propriety (), righteousness () and benevolence (rén)—the internal qualities that make for good relationships (see below).


One of the deepest teachings of Confucius, and one of the hardest to understand from a Western point of view, may have been the superiority of exemplification over explicit rules of behavior. His ethics may be considered one of the greatest examples of virtue ethics. This kind of "indirect" way to achieve a goal is used widely in his teachings by way of allusions, innuendo, and even tautology. This is why his teachings need to be examined and put into context for access by Westerners. A good example is found in this famous anecdote:

When the stables were burnt down, on returning from court, Confucius said, "Was anyone hurt?" He did not ask about the horses. (Analects 10:11)

The anecdote is not long, but it is of paramount importance. In his time horses were perhaps ten times more expensive than stablemen. By not asking about the horses, Confucius demonstrated his greatest priority: human beings. Thus, according to many Eastern and Western commentators, Confucius's teaching can be considered a Chinese variant of humanism.

Three concepts of Confucian ethics

Propriety ()

While Confucius grew up, referred to the three aspects of life: sacrificing to the gods, social and political institutions, and daily behavior. It was believed that originated from the heavens. Confucius taught that flowed not from heaven but from humanity. Yet the rules of propriety—whether religious forms or the etiquette of daily life—are essential for a good society. A person who restrains his actions according to the rules of propriety will certainly build good character; conversely, the goodness of a person's character can be seen in how well he keeps to the rules of propriety.

Righteousness ()

To Confucius, was the origin of . While doing things because they are proper () for the sake of one's self-interest is not necessarily bad, it would be a better to base one's life upon righteousness (). This means that rather than pursuing one's own selfish interests, one should do what is right and moral. It is doing the right thing for the right reason. The standard of is based upon reciprocity. Hence, an example of living by is to mourn one's father and mother for three years after their death. Since they took care of the child for the first three years of one's life, one must reciprocate by living in mourning for three years. has to be internalized so that it becomes part of our sub-conscious, an aspect of our character.

Humaneness (rén)

Just as flows out of , so flows out of rén. Ren can be translated variously as humaneness, benevolence or kindness. Confucian ethics is based upon empathy and understanding other people, rather than following divinely ordained rules (). Furthermore, the heart that is humane (rén) provides the emotional basis for righteousness (). To live with humaneness (rén) requires keeping the Confucian version of the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would want them to treat you (Analects 4:15). Virtue for Confucius is based upon harmony with other people.


Confucius's political thought is based upon his ethical thought. He argues that the best government is one that rules through "rites" and people's natural morality, rather than using bribery and force. He explained that this in one of the most important analects:

If the people be led by laws, and uniformity sought to be given them by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame. If they be led by virtue, and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of shame, and moreover will become good. (Analects 11:3)

This "sense of shame" is an internalization of duty, where the punishment precedes the evil action, instead of following it in the form of laws as in Legalism.

While he supported the authority of the ruler, his philosophy contained elements that limited his power. He argued for according language with truth; thus honesty was of the most paramount importance. Even in facial expression, truth must always be represented. In discussing the relationship between a subject and his king (or a son and his father), he underlined the need to give due respect to superiors. This demanded that the inferior must give advice to his superior if the superior was considered to be taking the wrong course of action. This was built upon by his disciple Mencius to argue that if the king was not acting like a king, he would lose the Mandate of Heaven and be overthrown. Therefore, tyrannicide is justified because a tyrant is more a thief than a king. Attempted tyrannicide, however, is not justified.

Was Confucius a Philosopher or a Religious Sage?

The problem with this question, much discussed in Western literature, is that it imposes Western distinctions onto Chinese society. In Western thought, since the Age of Enlightenment, religion is assumed to deal with the internal, spiritual realm and to be mainly concerned with what happens to us when we die. Chinese society at that time did not make such a rigid distinction; Earth mirrored the heavens. Kings ruled when they enjoyed the Mandate of Heaven. Events in heaven influence those on earth, and vice versa.

By keeping ancestors content in the spirit world, life on earth flourishes. Confucius was primarily interested in individual conduct and in social order and this did not say much about “religion” as Westerners understand it. His approach was to honor the Gods and the ancestors while concerning himself mainly with the living. Indeed, once asked, “how the spirits of the dead and the gods should be served?” He replied, “You are not able even to serve man. How can you serve the spirits?” “May I ask about death?” “You do not understand even life. How can you understand death?" (11:12). He also said that “To keep one's distance from the gods and spirits while showing them reverence can be called wisdom” (6:22). However, he ascribed a heavenly origin to his teaching; "heaven is the author of the virtue within me," he said (7:23). Also, it is our destiny that determines our status on earth.

Although finding our station in life and faithfully fulfilling the duties associated with that station (a worker should not try to be a manager) is central to his views, Confucius also believed that it is a duty to strive towards perfection. All have the potential for moral growth, to cultivate moral characters. Such cultivation, too, is humanly possible: "I have not come across a man whose strength proves insufficient for the task [of being benevolent] (4:6). This goal has a transcendent dimension. Confucius accepted the common Chinese notion of the Dao but avoided any definition; for him Dao represented the natural state of the Universe, which was order and not chaos, thus order can be achieved; "Is benevolence really so far away? If we really wished for it, it would come," he said (7:30). Perhaps Confucius was both a philosopher and a religious sage. Certainly, his aim was for a society full of benevolence, harmony and love. Fighting was an activity in which humans, who are different from animals, should not engage.

Teachings on Education

Confucius's teachings were later turned into a corps de doctrine by his numerous disciples and followers. In the centuries after his death, Mencius and Xun Zi both compiled texts, and in time, a philosophy was elaborated, which is known in the West as Confucianism. When the civil service examination was introduced, Confucius' thought was the main subject. Although Confucius spoke about discovering ones' station, he was a strong advocate of education and believed that education could produce better people. People do not have to assume that what others expect them to do limits their capabilities. You might be born poor in a farming community that expects you to become a farmer, but through education you might discover that your real station is as a civil servant. The civil service was a meritocracy—anyone who passed the examination could enter, however humble their birth.


Confucius, illustrated in Myths & Legends of China, by E. T. C. Werner (1922)
  • The Jesuits, while translating Chinese books into Western languages, translated the character for the Sages' name as Confucius. This Latinized form has since been commonly used in Western countries.
  • In systematic Romanizations:
    • Kǒng Fūzǐ (or Kǒng fū zǐ) in pinyin.
    • K'ung fu-tze in Wade-Giles (or, less accurately, Kung fu-tze).
      • Fūzǐ means teacher. Since it was disrespectful to call the teacher by name according to Chinese culture, he is known as just "Master Kong," or Confucius, even in modern days.
      • The character 'fu' is optional, so he is commonly also known as Kong Zi.
  • His actual name was Kǒng Qiū. Kǒng is a common family name in China.
  • His courtesy name was Zhòng Ní.
  • In 1 C.E. (first year of the Yuanshi period of the Han Dynasty), he was given his first posthumous name: Lord Bāochéngxūan, which means "Laudably Declarable Lord Ni."
  • His most popular posthumous names are
    • Zhìshèngxiānshī, meaning "The Former Teacher who Arrived at Sagehood" (comes from 1530 C.E., the ninth year of the Jianing period of the Ming Dynasty);
    • Zhìshèng, "the Greatest Sage";
    • Xiānshī, "the First Teacher."
  • He is also commonly known as Wànshìshībiǎo, "the Model Teacher of a Myriad Ages" in Taiwan.


Popular image of Confucius as an object of veneration, Thian Hock Keng Temple, Singapore

Confucius's disciples and only grandson, Zisi, continued his philosophical school after his death. While relying heavily on Confucius's ethico-political system, two of his most famous disciples emphasized radically different aspects of his teachings. Mencius articulated the infinite goodness inherent in humanity, while Xun Zi underscored the realistic and materialistic aspects of Confucian thought.

Confucius as a Cultic Figure

Soon after Confucius's death, Qufu, his hometown, became a place of devotion and remembrance. It is still a major destination for cultural tourism, and many Chinese people visit his grave and the surrounding temples. In China, there are many temples where representations of Buddha, Lao Zi and Confucius are found together. There are many temples dedicated to him, which have been used for Confucianist ceremonies. Venration of Confucius dates from around about 241 B.C.E., when sacrifices to his spirit were offered at the university in Biyong. The founder of the Han dynasty, Han Gaozu (r. 206-195 B.C.E.), offered a “Great Sacrifice to the spirit of Confucius at his tomb in Qufu.” The first state temple dedicated to him was built between 420 and 479 B.C.E. The main temple in Beijing, built in 1302, has been repaired and rebuilt many times.[2] The main rituals associated with Confucianism were a formalization of Confucius' stress on protocol and politeness, thus rituals associated with everyday life and special occasions were codified into a normative system.

Confucius' Descendants

Today, there are thousands of reputed descendants of Confucius. The main lineage fled from the Kong ancestral home in Qufu to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War. The latest head of the household is K'ung Te-ch'eng who is of the 77th generation and a professor at National Taiwan University. The Republic of China appointed him president of the Examination Yuan. Kung married Sun Qifang, the great-granddaughter of the Qing Dynasty scholar-official and first president of Beijing University, Sun Jianai, whose Shouxian, Anhui, family created one of the first business combines in modern-day China, which included the largest flour mill in Asia, the Fou Foong Flour Company. The Kongs are related by marriage to a number of prominent Confucian families, among them that of the Song Dynasty prime minister and martyr Wen Tianxiang.

See also


  1. Lun Yu - English: Confucius, a Biography, Confucius Publishing. Retrieved August 17, 2007.
  2. Thomas A. Wilson, The Cult of Confucius: Images of the Temple of Culture. Retrieved August 17, 2007.


  • Confucius. Lun yu (In English The Analects of Confucius). Translation and notes by Simon Leys. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1997. ISBN 0393040194
  • Confucius. "The Analects." Translated by E. Slingerland. In P. Ivanhoe, & B. Norden, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy. New York: Seven Bridges Press, 2001 (original c. 551–479 B.C.E.). ISBN 1889119091
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. "Confucianism: An Overview." In Encyclopedia of Religion (Vol. C, pp. 1890–1905). Detroit, MI: MacMillan Reference USA, 2005.
  • Creel, Herrlee Glessner. Chinese Thought, from Confucius to Mao Zedong. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971 ISBN 0226120309
  • Lau, D. C. Analects. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1995. 0486284840
  • Lau, D. C. Mencius. New York: Penguin, 2005. ISBN 014044971X
  • Mengzi. Mengzi. Translated by B. Van Norden. In P. Ivanhoe & B. Norden, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy. New York: Seven Bridges Press, 2001. ISBN 1889119091
  • Wu, J. (1995a). "Confucius." In I. McGreal (ed.), Great Thinkers of the Eastern World: The Major Thinkers of the Philosophical and Religious Classics of China, India, Japan, Korea and the world of Islam (pp. 3–8). New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 0062700855
  • Wu. J. (1995b). "Mencius." In I. McGreal (ed.), Great Thinkers of the Eastern World: The Major Thinkers of the Philosophical and Religious Classics of China, India, Japan, Korea and the world of Islam (pp. 27–30). New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 0062700855

External links

All links retrieved June 13, 2013.


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