CONFUCIUS, (Latinized form of Chinese Kúng-fu-tze, the Master Kung) (c.551-478 B.C.). The most famous of all the sages of China. He was born in the State of Lu in the province which is now called "Shan-tung," where his descendant of the seventy-sixth generation is now living. His lineage is traced by native tradition to Hang Ti, one of the early mythical rulers of China, although Confucius himself was the son of a soldier, Kung Shuh-Liang Heh, who was in command of the District of Chow. China at that time had the feudal system of government, very similar to feudal Europe. When a very old man, over 70 years of age, Heh wedded Chang Tsai in 552, and about a year later had as a son the future sage. When Confucius was but three years old, he lost his father, but the boy was most carefully educated by his mother, though the family was left in reduced circumstances, and trained according to the highest ideals of China. At an early age he gave evidence of his exceptional abilities and his regard for ancient customs, while his thirst for learning was insatiable. When only 17 years old, he was manager for a wealthy landowner of Lu, and two years later he married. As in the case of other great teachers, however, notably Buddha, and, later, Rama Krishna of India, Confucius seems to have been little adapted for family life. He had one son, who was born in 531, and, it would seem, two daughters. After four years he parted from his wife, but doubtless with unbroken friendship on both sides. The real life work of Confucius began when he was 22, and from that time till his death, a period of 51 years, he led the life of a teacher, migrating frequently from place to place. His conduct on the death of his mother, which occurred in 527, is significant as showing the bent of his mind. With a filial devotion very rare at that epoch. he erected a large mound over her as she lay in the same grave with his father, and for 27 months remained in entire seclusion. This time was probably not wasted. Doubtless his meditations during this period of mourning had considerable influence on his subsequent teachings. The effect of his rigorous observance of the ancient ceremonial custom of mourning for parents had an effect on all who knew him and heightened their respect for his words. By the time Confucius had reached the age of 30 he had formulated to his own satisfaction the tenets of his philosophy. In 517 he gained his first pupils of importance and he was enabled to visit Lo-yang, the capital of the district where he had an interview with Lao Tsz', the founder of Taoism. On his return to Lu in the following year he found the city in a state of anarchy, and on the expulsion of the Governor, who was his friend, Confucius retired with the ex-official to the neighboring State of Tsi. Here, however, he could not find a congenial home, for his teachings were not acceptable, and he returned to Lu, where he remained for the next 15 years, carefully keeping himself aloof from all factional strife and never slackening his devotion to his mission. At last his moral worth received its reward, and at the age of 52 Confucius was appointed Governor of Chung-tu, and this honor was followed by others higher still. Through the machinations of the Governor of Tsi, however, who was afraid that the wise counsels of Confucius would make the State of Lu supreme in China, the influence of the master in Lu was so weakened that he left the country after four years, at that time 56 years of age. For 13 years he wandered from place to place and did not return to Lu until in his sixty-ninth year. His last years were spent in well-earned retirement; but they were full of sorrow, marked by the deaths of his son and his two best-loved disciples, Yen Hui and Tsz' Lu. In 478 the teacher himself died, saddened by the fear lest he had failed to accomplish his mission. Herein he was wrong. The news of his death spread throughout the land and called attention anew to his purity of life and teaching, so that the name of Confucius has ever since been the highest and most honored in the land to which he gave his lifelong devotion. By the irony of fate he was deified after his death, and, like Buddha, Confucius, who had little belief in the supernatural, became a divinity.
Confucius was, as he himself said, not a reformer, but a conserver. This is strikingly evident in his services to the literature of China. Although he is sometimes called a prolific author, he was in reality but a careful though volumiuous editor, and he may, if this is clearly understood, be termed the founder of Chinese literature. Thus he established the canon of four of the "five classics," the Shih Ching, or `Book of Poems,' the Li Ching, or `Book of Rites,' the I Ching, or `Book of Changes' (originally a cosmological work), and the Shu Ching, or `Book of Historical Documents,' for which Confucius is said to have composed a preface, although merely a list of books which the Shu Ching once contained now remains. His one independent work, apart from his apothegms which were recorded by his disciples, is the Ch'un Tsin, or ‘Spring and Autumn.' This is an extremely dry annalistic history, very meagre in content and information, and altogether untrustworthy as a source of Chinese history, and records the events in the State of Lu from 721 to 480 B.C., a period of 242 years.
Confucius was in no real sense of the word a religious teacher, in fact, did not concern himself with religion. His doctrines were entirely ethical and political. His attitude towards the supernatural may be summed up in his own words: "Respect the gods! but have as little as possible to do with them," and it is recorded that he spoke but seldom of four subjects-marvels, feats of strength, rebellions, and spiritual beings. In harmony with this attitude he expresses no opinion concerning the immortality of the soul. He inculcates ever the duty, which he himself had observed so faithfully, of honor to parents and of obedience to temporal power. In this way the individual becomes absorbed in the family and the family in the state, which was regarded by Confucius as the highest concept on earth. For a state to be prosperous, mercy and all other virtues are necessary, and these qualities are to be manifested by the entire body of citizens. If the emperor was a wicked man and a bad ruler, Confucius taught that he need not be obeyed and that his subjects were free to depose him, which principle the Chinese many times afterward put into effect. The teachings of Confucius are, consequently, wholly worldly in character, and the dry maxims in which he expressed his views are permeated by a utilitarian philosophy which is devoid of any touch of idealism. His attitude towards women is the one generally current in the Orient. Metaphysical speculation, like religious investigation, is absent from his system, which sums up its principles in the five cardinal virtues-humanity, uprightness, decorum, wisdom, and truth. Confucius may perhaps be said to be China incarnate in his lack of originality; but with his devotion to the practical and his moral principles as patriot, sage, and teacher, he ranks among the foremost men that the world has ever seen. The most valuable account of Confucius is contained in the Lung Yü, or `Philosophical Dialogues,' which record his conversations, while the Ta Hsüeh, or `Great Learning,' and the Chung Yung or `Doctrine of the Mean,' are. important sources for the study of his system of philosophy.
As illustrations of the maxims of Confucius, the following characteristic ones may be cited: Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is death of the mind. Riches and honor are what men desire; yet, except in accordance with right, they should not be enjoyed: poverty and degradation are what men dread; yet, except in accordance with right, they should not be avoided. What the superior man seeks is in himself; what the small man seeks is in others. The foundation of all good is the virtue of individual men. Confucius also enunciated the Golden Rule, although in negative terms, as follows: "What ye would not that others should do unto you, do ye not unto them." Despite the negative form of this maxim, it is to all intents and purposes closely parallel to the Golden Rule as given by Christ.
Some one has said that, no matter of what religion a Chinese may be, he is ex officio a Confucianist. This is as true of China to-day as it ever was in the past. At present there is a strong movement going on in Republican China to have Confucianism recognized as the state religion. It is significant to note that Yuan Shï-K'ai revived the former Imperial ceremonies in connection with the veneration of the master. This was done, however, not for the purpose of sanctioning Confucianism exclusively, but by such means to hold the people in the present period of change true to the old standards of ethics and morality.
The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. V (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 731-732.