The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Ancestral name (姓): Zi¹ (Chinese:; Pinyin: Zǐ)
Clan name (氏): Kong (Ch: ; Py: Kǒng)
Given name (名): Qiu (Ch: ; Py: Qiū)
Courtesy name (字): Zhongni (Ch: 仲尼 ; Py: Zhngn)
Posthumous name (謚): The Ultimate Sage Master
of Yore²
(Ch: 至聖先師 ;
Py: Zhshng Xiānshī)
Styled: Master Kong³
(Ch: 孔子, less frequently 孔夫子;
Py: Kǒngzǐ, less fr. Kǒngfūzǐ;
WG: K'ung-tzu, less fr. K'ung Fu-tzu)
1This Chinese word, 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.
2 Posthumous name since 1530. Between 1307 and 1530 his
posthumous name was: "The Lord Propagator of Culture Ultimate
Sage and Great Accomplisher" (
大成至聖文宣王) which is still
the name that can be seen on his tomb.
3 Romanized as "Confucius".

Confucius (traditionally September 8? 551 BCE479 BCE) was a famous sage and social philosopher of China whose teachings deeply influenced East Asia during twenty centuries. Living in times of trouble, he was convinced of his ability to restore the world's order but he failed. Considered as a "Throneless King", he eventually became involved in teaching disciples. His philosophy emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, and justice and sincerity. These values gained prominence in China after being chosen among other doctrines (such as Legalism or Taoism) during the Han dynasty. Used since then as the imperial orthodoxy, Confucius' thoughts have been changed into a vast and complete philosophical system known in the west as Confucianism.

The Analects is a short collection of his discussions with disciples, compiled posthumously. These contain the gist of his teachings. This book contains the best view on the Master's life and thought.


His life

At fifteen, I set my mind upon learning;
At thirty, I took my stand;
At forty, I had no longer doubts;
At fifty, I knew the will of the heavens;
At sixty my ear was attuned;
At seventy, I follow all the desires of my heart without having any rule.

According to traditional belief, Confucius was born in 551 BCE (during the Spring and Autumn Period, at the beginning of the Hundred Schools of Thought philosophical movement) in the city of Qufu in the Chinese State of Lu (鲁国 [魯國] lǔgu) (now part of present-day Shandong Province and culturally and geographically close to the royal mansion of Zhou). He was the son of a once noble family who had recently fled from the State of Song . 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 Sh (士), between old nobility and common people, which later became the prominent class of literati because of the cultural and intellectual skills they shared.

As a child, he is 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 rose to the position of Justice Minister. It is said that, after several years, disapproving of the politics of his Prince, he resigned. At about age fifty, seeing no way to improve the government, he gave up his political career in Lu, and began a twelve year journey around China, seeking the "Way" and trying unsuccessfully to convince many different rulers of his political beliefs and to push them into reality. When he was about sixty, he returned home and spent the last years of his life teaching an increasing number of disciples, trying to share his experiences with them and transmit the old wisdom via a set of books called the Five Classics.


In the Analects, where one can find the most intimate descriptions of him, Confucius presents himself as a transmitter who invented nothing and his greatest emphasis may be the one on study, the Chinese character which opens the book. In this respect, he is mostly seen by Chinese people as a Great Teacher or 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 relating past political events (like the Annals) or past feelings of common people (like the Book of Odes). In these times of division, chaos, and endless wars between feudal states, he wanted to restore the Mandate of Heaven that could unify the "world" (i.e. China) and bestow peace and prosperity on the people. In this respect, Confucius is considered a great proponent of conservatism, but a closer look at what he proposes often shows that he used (and maybe twisted) past institutions and rites to push a new political agenda of his own: he wanted rulers to be chosen on their merits, not their parentage. He wanted rulers who were devoted to their people. And he wanted the ruler to reach perfection himself, thus spreading his own virtues to the people instead of imposing proper behavior with laws and rules.

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 virtue ethics. This kind of "indirect" way to achieve a goal is used widely in his teachings, where allusions, innuendo, and even tautology are common ways of expressing himself. That 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 X.11, tr. A. Waley

What seems a matter of tiny importance has been long commented on and shows another of the Confucian specificities that have to be underlined. When one knows that in his time horses were perhaps ten times more expensive than stablemen, one can understand that, by "not asking about the horses", Confucius demonstrated his greatest priority: human beings. Thus, when one sees a little bit of the greater picture, according to many ancient or recent Eastern and Western commentators, Confucius' teaching can be considered a noteworthy Chinese variant of Humanism.

Confucius also heavily emphasized what he calls "rites and music", referring to these social conventions as two poles to balance order and harmony. While rites, in short, show off social hierarchies, music unifies hearts in shared enjoyment. He added that rites aren't only the way to arrange sacrificial tools, and music isn't only the sound of stick on bell. Both are mutual communication between someone's humanity and his social context, both feed social relationships, like the five prototypes: between father and son, husband and wife, prince and subject, elder and youngster, and between friends. Duties are always balanced and if a subject has to obey his ruler, he also has to tell him when he's wrong.

Confucius' teachings have been turned later into a corps de doctrine by his numerous disciples and followers. In the centuries after his death, Mencius and Xun Zi both wrote prominent books on these, and with time a philosophy has been elaborated, which is known in the West as Confucianism.


Main article: Confucianism

Although Confucianism is often followed in a religious manner by the Chinese, argument continues over whether to refer to it as a religion because it makes little reference to theological or spiritual matters (God(s), the afterlife, etc.).

Confucius's principles gained wide acceptance primarily because of their basis in common Chinese opinion. He championed strong familial loyalty, ancestor worship, and respect of elders by their children and of husbands by their wives, and used the family as a basis for an ideal government. He expressed the well-known principle to not do to others what you do not want done to yourself (the Golden Rule). He also looked nostalgically upon earlier days, and urged the Chinese, particularly the politicians, to model themselves on earlier examples — although whether or not older rulers had governed by Confucian standards is dubious.


The Confucian theory of ethics is based on three important concepts:

While Confucius grew up, (礼 [禮]) referred to three aspects of life, that of sacrificing to the gods, social and political institutions, and daily behavior. It was believed that originated from the heavens. Confucius redefined , arguing that it flowed not from heaven but from humanity. He redefined to refer to all actions committed by a person to build the ideal society. to Confucius became every action by a person aiming at meeting the person's surface desires. These can be either good or bad. Generally attempts to obtain short term pleasure are bad while those that in the long term try to make your life better are generally good.

To Confucius, y (义 [義]) was the origin of . Y can best be translated as righteousness. While doing things because of , your own self-interest, was not necessarily bad, you would be a better, more righteous person if you base your life upon following y. This means that rather than pursuing your own selfish interests you should do what is right and what is moral. Y is based upon reciprocity. An example of living by y is how you must mourn your father and mother for three years after their death. Since they took care of you for the first three years of your life you must reciprocate by living in mourning for three years.

Just as flows out of y, so y flows out of rn (仁). Ren can best be translated as human heartedness. His moral system was based upon empathy and understanding others, rather than divinely ordained rules. To live by rn was even better than living by the rules of y. To live by rn one used another Confucian version of the Golden Rule: he argued that you must always treat your inferiors just as you would want your superiors to treat you. Virtue under Confucius is based upon harmony with others, very different from the Aristotelian view of virtue being personal excellence.

An early version of the Golden Rule: What one does not wish for oneself, one ought not to do to any one else; what one recognizes as desirable for oneself, one ought to be willing to grant to others. (Confucius and Confucianism, Richard Wilhelm)


Confucius 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 this in one of the most important analects: 1. "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." (Translated by James Legge) This "sense of shame" is somewhat 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 idea of the all-powerful Emperor, probably because of the chaotic state of China at his time, his philosophies contained a number of elements to limit the power of the rulers. He argued for according language with truth—thus honesty was of the most paramount importance. Even in facial expression, one sought always to achieve this. In discussing the relationship between a son and his father (or a subject and his King), 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 in a given situation.

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 (but attempted tyrannicide is not).

Confucius' Political Exile

When Confucius held the post of the highest officer in Lu, he issued an arrest and execution order for Sau-Zhen-Mau (少正卯), a respected person in Lu. The order gave five rather vague reasons: 1. Having a rebellious mind, 2. Behaving awkwardly and refusing corrections, 3. Talking nonsense, 4. Recording a bad event and spreading the news, 5. Support of wicked acts. (1.心逆而险 2.行辟而坚 3.言伪而辩 4. 记丑而博 5.顺非而泽). (Note, however, that this accusation of judicial murder has been denied by Confucius' admirers.)

The King of Lu was unhappy at this abuse of power, and during an annual ritual he refused to distribute the sacred meat to Confucius, a strong indication of disapproval. In fact, Confucius was forced into exile from Lu after these accusations. During his exile (called “touring the kingdoms” 周游列国 in Confucianism), Confucius was not widely welcomed; some kingdoms even forbade him to cross their borders.


See main article : Disciples of Confucius

Confucius' philosophical school was first continued by his direct disciples and by his grandson Zisi . Mencius and Xun Zi are his two great followers, one on each "side" of his philosophy, perhaps simply described as optimism and pessimism. They built upon and expanded his ethico-political system.


  • The Jesuits, while translating Chinese books into Western languages, translated 孔夫子 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 孔丘, Kǒng Qiū. Kǒng is a common family name in China.
  • His courtesy name was 仲尼, Zhng N.
  • In 1 AC (first year of the Yuanshi period of the Han Dynasty), he was given his first posthumous name: 褒成宣尼公, Lord Bāochngxūan, which means "Laudably Declarable Lord Ni."
  • His most popular posthumous names are
    • 至聖先師, Zhshngxiānshī, meaning "The Former Teacher who Reached Sainthood" (comes from 1530, the ninth year of the Jianing period of the Ming Dynasty);
    • 至聖, Zhshng, "the Greatest Sage";
    • 先師, Xiānshī, "the First Teacher".
  • He is also commonly known as 萬世師表, Wnshshībiǎo, "the Model Teacher of a Myriad Ages" in Taiwan.

Family and Descendants

Confucius' descendants were identified and honored by the imperial government. They were honored 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 (衍聖公 Yǎnshng gōng), which means "overflowing with sainthood." The latest descendant is K'ung Te-ch'eng (孔德成 Kǒng Dchng) (born 1920), who is of the 77th generation and a professor at National Taiwan University; he 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 that included the largest flour mill in Asia, the Fou Foong Flour Company 福豐麵粉廠. 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 文天祥.


Soon after Confucius' 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 one can find representations of Buddha, Lao Zi and Confucius together. There are also many temples dedicated to him which have been used for Confucianist ceremonies.

See also

Further reading

  • Herrlee Glessner Creel , Chinese Thought, from Confucius to Mao Zedong, ISBN 0226120309

External links

Last updated: 10-21-2005 13:54:04
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