Confucius’ family name was Kong, and his given name Qiu. His style name was Zhongni. He was born in 551 B.C. in Zou Yi of Chang Ping in Lu Country. After he grew up, Confucius was once a minor official in charge of warehouse management where he was fair and accurate when handling money and grain. He was also once a manager of a livestock farm and tended his animals well. Because of that, he was promoted to be an official managing construction projects. Confucius was 9 feet 4 inches tall in the Chinese measurement system, so people called him “Long Person” and regarded him as different from others.
Confucius was an ordinary man but scholars called him a great teacher. From emperors and dukes to ordinary people who talked about the ‘Six Arts,’ they all take Confucius’ theories as the highest principle. It can be said that Confucius is the supreme saint.
Sima Qian, famous historian
After he returned to Lu Country after visiting Zhou and learning Zhou’s ceremonial observance system, more and more students came to study with Confucius. It can be said that Confucius was the first person in China’s history of education to teach students privately. Before him, schools were run by the government. Confucius promoted his private school, received students of various kinds, and popularized education for ordinary people. He spread knowledge in society and contributed a great deal to ancient education.
When Confucius was 35 years old, he went to the Qi State. Duke Jing of Qi consulted Confucius about the way to govern the country. Confucius said, “The emperor should act like an emperor, officials should act like officials, fathers should act like fathers, and sons should act like sons.” Hearing this, Duke Jing replied, “You are absolutely right! If the emperor does not act like an emperor, officials do not act like officials, fathers do not act like fathers, and sons do not act like sons. Even if there is plenty of food, how can I get them to eat it?” On a different date, Duke Jing consulted Confucius again about the principles of governing the country, Confucius said, “The most important thing in governing a country is to be thrifty with the budget and eliminate any waste.”
Duke Jing was happy about the advice and planned to grant Confucius some land in Ni Xi. His advisor, Yan Ying, dissuaded him from doing so by saying, “This kind of scholar is very good at talking. You cannot control them with laws. They are proud, willful, and opinionated. They care a lot about funeral arrangements and are willing to exhaust all their possessions for grand funerals. They lobby everywhere and seek for positions and pay. Therefore, you cannot use them to govern the country. Now, Confucius stresses appearance, dress, and personal adornments; defines complicated ceremonial etiquette for going to and leaving the court; and painstakingly promotes the rule of manners. Even after several generations, we won’t be able to master and be fluent in these unnecessary and overly elaborate formalities. If you hope to change Qi’s customs, I am afraid that it’s not a good idea.” Yan Ying’s advice was heeded. From then on, although Duke Jing still politely met with Confucius, he no longer asked for any advice on ceremony. Confucius heard that some officials of Qi Country were planning to harm him. Duke Jing said to Confucius, “I am old and can’t give you a post any more,” so Confucius left Qi and returned to the state of Lu.
Back in Lu, although Confucius achieved a great deal in politics and had several important accomplishments, his path as a government official was not smooth. One time during a ceremony held by the duke to offer sacrifices to Heaven, Royal Counselor San Huan intentionally did not offer Confucius a piece of meat, which was one of the most severe punishments in Zhou’s system of etiquette. Confucius knew that he wouldn’t have much of a future in the government of Lu anymore, so he left his country, wondering around to give lectures to promote his ideas.
Confucius was then about 50 years old. He worked tirelessly, taking his students to travel to different countries to promote his ideas. However, none of the countries would accept his ideas. When he was 63 years old, Confucius returned to Lu, but Lu did not give him an important position either. After that, Confucius stopped seeking any official position.
Even though he was getting very old, Confucius’s thoughts were the most brilliant in the last nine years of his life. During that time, Confucius devoted himself to teaching students and writing books. As a philosophical system, Confucianism was established in those last nine years.
In the time of Confucius, the Zhou court was declining, and the ceremonial observance system and music were all corrupted. Even the “Shi (poem)” and “Shu (book)” were incomplete. Confucius studied the ceremonial observance systems of Xia, Shang and West Zhou dynasties and edited them into “Shang Shu” and “Li Ji.” After returning to Lu from Wei, Confucius started to restore poems and music, and he restored “Ya” and “Song” back to their original tunes. At that time, there were more than three thousand poems passed down from ancient times. Confucius deleted the duplicates and chose those with appropriate content for the teaching of propriety and justice. The beginning of the collection of the poems was a poem about affections between man and woman. Confucius could play and sing all 305 poems in order to the tunes of “Shao,” “Wu,” “Ya,” and “Song.” Thus, the music systems of previous dynasties were restored and appropriately passed on.
In his later years, Confucius was interested in studying The Book of Changes. Confucius was so diligent in studying the book that he wore out the piece of rawhide that tied the book together several times. He said, “Let me live several years longer, so I will be able to fully understand and master the words and principles in the book.”
Confucius said, “What a gentleman worries about is to not leave a good reputation after his death. If my proposal cannot be applied, what contribution do I have to leave a good name for the society?” Therefore, he wrote “Spring and Autumn” based on the history books of Lu, starting from the first year of Yin Lu Gong (722 B. C.) and ending with the year fourteen of Lu Ai Gong (481 B. C.), which included twelve dukes of Lu. It centered on Lu and promoted inheriting the tradition of Xia, Shang, and Zhou Dynasties. The book’s words are simple, yet their meaning is broad. In the book, the Dukes of Wu and Chu Country were downgraded and called “noblemen.” At the end of the Zhou Dynasty, the emperor had lost all power. The dukes from the warring states forced the emperor to join them in a meeting. In the book, the event was recorded as “Emperor Xiang of Zhou Dynasty came to He Yang for hunting.” There are many such examples. “Spring and Autumn” portrayed historical events based on the writer’s own ideas, and that is known as the “Spring and Autumn” technique of writing.
Finally, Confucius completed the editing of “Shi (Poem),” “Shu (Book) ,” “Li (Ceremony) ,” “Yue (Music),” “Yi (Changes),” and “Spring and Autumn,” that are called “Liu Yi (Six Arts).” Confucius used “Shi (Poem) ,” “Shu (Book) ,” “Li (Ceremony) ,” and “Yue (Music)” as textbooks to teach his students. He had about three thousand students (out of which 72 were known as able and virtuous). There were even more who received Confucius’s teaching in various aspects but were not formally registered as his students.
When he was about to die, his student, Zi Gong, came to see him. Confucius sighed and sang, “Mount Tai is going to collapse! The main post is going to break and the philosopher is going to die!” Tears flowed from Confucius’ eyes as he sang, and he said to Zi Gong, “The world has lost the common Tao for a long time. No one will follow my proposal …” Seven days later, Confucius died at the age of 73. It was on the day of Ji Chou, April, 479 B. C.
Based on his words and behavior, Confucius’ students edited his “Statement,” and it has become the most direct and reliable material by which we understand Confucius today. Confucius told people what the Middle Way is, thus laying the foundation of the standard for being a human, which is benevolence, justice, courtesy, wisdom, and trust. It has had tremendous influence on the history and culture of China and even Southeast Asia.
The famous historian, Sima Qian, once said, “’The Poem’ has the following lines, ‘Tall as a mountain to be respected by people and great as Tao to be followed by people.’ Ever since the ancient time, there were many emperors and virtuous men, who were influential officials and glorious when alive, but left nothing when they died. Confucius was an ordinary man but scholars called him a great teacher. From emperors and dukes to ordinary people who talked about the ‘Six Arts,’ they all take Confucius’ theories as the highest principle. It can be said that Confucius is the supreme saint.” Sima Qian’s appraisal is considered quite accurate.