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Short Summary of the Life of Confucius
What is the biography of Confucius?
Confucius [Latinized form of Chinese K’ung-fu-tszo, the Master K’ung] was an influential Chinese philosopher, born 551 B.C. in Lu, one of the feudal states into which China was then divided. Though ho did not himself commit his teachings to writing, thanks to the pious care with which his disciples recorded not only his sayings but also his manner of life hardly any character of antiquity is so well known to us. His father, a soldier distinguished for deeds of strength and daring, died when Confucius, the child of his old age bv a second marriage was only three years old, leaving him to his mother’s care. He married at the age of nineteen, and for two years held subordinate posts in the public service. At twenty-two Confucius entered on what was to be the chief occupation of his life that of a public teacher.
To all who resorted to him he gave instruction, however small the fee offered, if only they gave evidence of capacity and zeal for improvement. As his fame spread abroad the number of his disciples increased, until it is said at one time to have reached 8,000.
The political disorders growing out of the quarrels of the feudal states, which the authority of the emperor was too weak to restrain, naturally directed Confucius's attention to the principles of good government, and this became one of his most frequent topics of discourse. At the age of fifty-one he was made chief magistrate of the town of Chung-tu, and had at length an opportunity to put his theories into practice.
The immediate and marked improvement in the manners of the inhabitants led to his advancement, first to the post of assistant superintendent of public works and next to that of minister of crime in Lu. Here also similar results followed, but the jealousies and fears of the neighboring states were now aroused, and unworthy means were taken to create a breach between the Marquis of Lu and his minister. Confucius, finding it impossible to retain his office with dignity, withdrew from Lu, and for thirteen years journeyed from one to another of the neighboring states, everywhere received with honor, but nowhere finding a ruler willing to be guided by his counsels. Confucius returned to his native state in 488 B.C., and until his death in 479 was mainly occupied with literary pursuits.
He had been all his life a student of the early history and literature of China, and the editorship of four of the “five classics” is with more or less justice ascribed to him, while the fifth, the Spring and Autumn Annals, a brief record of events in Lu from 721 to 480 B.C.
The principal source of our knowledge of his character and teaching is the Lun yu, which might be aptly styled the “ Memorabilia of Confucius.” Two other of the “ four books ” -- the Great Learning and the Doctrine of the Mean (the latter ascribed to K’ung Keih, the grandson of Confucius) -- contain digests of his teaching, but in a less original and therefore for us less valuable form. Confucius put forward no claim to originality. He spoke of himself as a “transmitter and not a maker, believing in and loving the ancients ”; again, “ I am not one who was born in the possession of knowledge; I am one who is fond of antiquity and earnest in seeking it there.”
This reverence for antiquity extended even to its forms and ceremonies, in the observance of which, however, his evident sincerity preserved him the appearance of formalism. Confucius was preeminently a teacher of ethics. The whole tendency of his mind was practical rather than speculative. We are told that “there were four things which he taught: letters, ethics, devotion of soul, and truthfulness.” He held to the native goodness of human nature, and his system of morals rested on no sanctions of future rewards and punishments. Many of his recorded sayings are admirable, but of highest value is his enunciation of the “golden rule.”
One of his disciples asked, “Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?” Confucius said, “Is not reciprocity such a word? What you do not want done to yourself do not do to others.” The progress of his own development he has thus described: “At fifteen I had my mind bent on learning; at thirty I stood firm; at forty I had no doubts; at fifty I knew the decrees of heaven; at sixty my ear was an obedient organ; at seventy I could follow what my heart desired without transgressing what was right.
The reserve with which Confucius spoke of man's relation to the powers above and of the future life may be due in part to the influence of the early Chinese religion. This, like the Government, was patriarchal in character; the emperor, as the representative of his people, alone offered sacrifices to heaven, while the popular religion was little more than ancestor-worship. But Confucius was also, by the native temper of his mind, inclined to positivism and secularism. Among the subjects on which ne did not talk were “extraordinary things” and “spiritual beings.”. One of his disciples, Ki Loo, “ asked about serving the spirits of the dead. Confucius said: While you are not able to serve men, how can you serve their spirits?" Ki Loo added: "I venture to ask about death." He was answered: "While you do not know life, how can you know about death.” This attitude he has communicated to his followers, and so Confuciuanism is largely free of magical practices.
Ahigh ethical value must be accorded to the teaching of Confucius. It was, moreover, peculiarly adapted to the genius of the Chinese people, already predisposed, like himself, to the conservatism which he has done so much to strengthen. But his teaching alone, even with the aid of his strong personality, would hardly account for the vast influence wnich he has held and still continues to hold over Chinese culture. To explain this we must take into account also the place which the classical books, and through them the doctrines of Confucius, occupied in the educational and administrative systems of China prior to the Communist Revolution. For centuries they were the foundation, and we might almost say the sum, of the instruction given in the schools, and the main subjects in the examinations which guarded the entrance to and regulated promotion in the public service. The Government by lavish honors paid to his memory added further to the weight of his authority. His family was ennobled, and the oldest representative in the direct line had the rank and revenues of a duke, the sole hereditary dignity of Chinese origin which was respected by the reigning Manchu dynasty. Twice a year the emperor himself made offerings in his honor in the hall of the imperial college at Peking. Temples dedicated to him were attached to the examination halls, more than 1,500 in number, scattered throughout the empire. In Japan and Korea also, among the educated classes, his authority as a teacher was hardly less than in his native land.
The Communist Revolution created a cultural upheaval in China but did not fully eradicate the influence of Confucius, which even now continues to affect Chinese culture and civilization.
Adapted from the article Confucius, in the Century Cyclopedia by Addison Van Name.