Confucius in scholarly dress, as imagined
by an artist 11 centuries after he lived.
His sayings may also be imagined.
According to legend, Confucius was born in a principality called Lu – where Shang culture remained strong. Confucius is said to have lost his father when he was three and to have studied in his early youth. Some have claimed that he may have been the illegitimate son of a nobleman and a concubine. This is because rather than work in the fields and remain illiterate as common boys did he went to work for the local ruler, managing stables and keeping books for granaries. After marrying at nineteen, he completed studies that earned him the title of scholar. As a scholar he was a master of ritual, music, archery, charioteering, calligraphy and arithmetic and he had some familiarity with poetry and history.
Confucius lived after people around him began using iron tools, and the use of iron brought a higher productivity in agriculture, a rise in population, more urban growth, improvements in transportation and trade, coinage and new wealth. This changed and loosened social stratification and may have led some scholars to see the world as askew. Some scholars are described as responding by becoming recluses. Confucius is described as trying to make society proper by opening a school for those he thought were potential leaders.
Confucius is described as a teacher who conversed rather than lectured. He is described as the first among the Chinese to support himself by teaching, as the Sophists did in Athens – by charging tuition.
According to legend, Confucius also became active in politics, advocating government for the happiness of the common people rather than the pleasure of their rulers, and he advocated a reduction of taxes, the mitigation of severe punishments and the avoidance of wars.
Confucius is described by his biographers as advocating the restoration and renovation of the institutions of the first of the Zhou emperors. He is described as blaming the ills of his day on leaders neglecting old Zhou rituals or performing these rituals incorrectly. Controversy exists over whether Confucius actually revered the early rule of the Zhou emperors or merely pretended such reverence in order to make his views more palatable to contemporaries – a subterfuge that would have contradicted sayings attributed to him about honesty, sincerity and straight-forwardness.
According to Confucius, obedience was the prime ingredient of the authentic individual. To maintain harmony, believed Confucius, people should not wander from what is authentic. According to his biographers, Confucius created what he called categories and held that a king who did not behave as a king was not a king, and a son who did not behave as a son was not a son.
Confucius is described as believing in class distinctions – what he called social categories. He not only supported the religious values of the elite, he supported their good manners, and he dissociated himself from the religion that had become identified with the common people: shamanism, witchcraft and sorcery.
When Confucius was around fifty, he served as a minister of public works and as a minister of justice, but his support for Zhou kingship could not have set well with the ruler of Lu – who owed his power to independence from Zhou rule. And the moral posturing of Confucius might have alienated him from those advisors and servants who sought advantage for themselves by enticing the ruler with sensual pleasures.
Confucius was disappointed that his views were not taken seriously and put into practice. He left politics in disgust and went on a decade of dangerous travels through various states. When he was sixty-seven, he responded to an invitation from some of his disciples to return to Lu, and there he taught five more years before he died, still viewing the world as askew, his optimism from earlier years having gone unrewarded.
Confucius and Confucianism, Encyclopedia Britiannica (Realistic and scholarly rather than mythical and devotional)
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