1902 Encyclopedia > Confucius


CONFUCIUS, the famous sage of China (550 or 551-478 B.C.) They are very few among all the millions of the Chinese people who would not heartily repeat the lines with which the first paragraph in a popular history of the sage concludes:—

"Confucius ! Confucius ! How great was Confucius !
Before him there was no Confucius,
Since him there has been no other.
Confucius ! Confucius ! How great was Confucius!"

The man whose memory is thus cherished by a third portion of the human race, and the stamp of whose character and teachings is still impressed, after so long a time, on the institutions of his country, demands our careful study. In order to understand the events of his life and the influence of his opinions, we must endeavour to get some impression of the China that existed in his time, in the 5th and 6th centuries before our Christian era.

The dynasty of Chow, the third which within historic time had ruled the country, lasting from 1122 to 256 B.C., had passed its zenith, and its kings no longer held the sceptre with a firm grasp. It must not be supposed that the territory under their sway extended over all the eighteen provinces which now constitute what is called "China proper." It was not a sixth part of the present empire. On the south it hardly reached half-way from the Ho, or Yellow River, to the Kiang, or Yang-tze. Cheh-kiang, Kiang-si, Hu-nan, Fuh-kien, Kwang-tung, Kwang-si, Kwei-chow, and the great provinces of Yun-nan, Sze-ch’uen, and Kan-suh on the west, were thinly peopled by barbarous tribes which acknowledged no subjection to "the Middle State." Ho-nan and Shan-si, with portions of Shen-si, Chih-li, Shan-tung, Gan-hwui, Kiang-su, and Hu-pih, were all which formed the dominions of Chow. For thirteen years of his life Confucius wandered about from state to state, seeking rest and patrons ; but his journeyings were confined within the modern provinces of Ho-nan and Shan-tung, and the borders of Chih-li and Hu-pih. Many Europeans now living have travelled over much more of China than he did. The fact helps us to realize the relation of Confucius to his age, and it shows us that he gained his high position through his own unaided powers and the influences of his native country. It has never been hinted, as in the case of his contemporary, the founder of Taoism, that he learned anything from abroad.

Within this China of the Chow dynasty there might be a population, in Confucius’s time, of from 10,000,000 to 15,000,000. We read frequently, in the classical books, of the "ten thousand states," in which the people were distributed; but that is merely a grand exaggeration. In what has been called, though erroneously, as we shall see, Confucius’s History of his own Times, we find only 13 states of note, and the number of all the states, large and small, which can be brought together from it, and the much more extensive supplement to it by Tso K’iu-ming, not much posterior to the sage, is under 150.

Chow was a feudal kingdom. The lords of the different territories belonged to five orders of nobility, corresponding closely to the dukes, marquises, earls, counts, and barons of feudal Europe. The theory of the constitution required that the princes, on every fresh succession, should receive investiture from the king, and thereafter appear at his court at stated times. They paid to him annually certain specified tributes, and might be called out with their military levies at any time in his service. A feudal Kingdom was sure to be a prey to disorder unless there were energy and ability in the character and administration of the sovereign; and Confucius has sketched, in the work referred to above, the Annals of Lu, his native state, for 242 years, from 722 to 481 B.C., which might almost be summed up in the words: "In those days there was no king in China, and every prince did what was right in his own eyes." In 770 B.C. a northern horde had plundered the capital, which was then in the present department of Si-gan, Shen-si, and killed the king, whose son withdrew across the Ho and established himself in a new centre, near the present city of Loh-yang in Ho-nan; but from that time the prestige of Chow was gone. Its representatives continued for four centuries and a half with the title of king, but they were less powerful than several of their feudatories. The Annals of Lu, enlarged by Tso K’iuming so as to embrace the history of the kingdom generally, are as full of life and interest as the pages of Froissart. Feats of arms, great battles, heroic virtues, devoted friendships, and atrocious crimes make the chronicles of China in the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries before the birth of Christ as attractive as those of France and England in the 14th and some other centuries after it. There was in China in the former period more of literary culture and of many arts of civilization than there was in Europe in the latter. Not only the royal court, but every feudal court, had its historiographers and musicians. Institutions of an educational character abounded. There were ancient histories and poems, and codes of laws, and books of ceremonies. Yet the period was one of wide-spread and ever-increasing suffering and degeneracy. While the general government was feeble, disorganization was at work in each particular state.

But three things must be kept in mind when we compare feudal China with feudal Europe,—three elements which wrought to give to the former peculiarities of character for which our better acquaintance with the latter will not have prepared us. First, we must take into account the long duration of the time through which the central authority was devoid of vigour. For about five centuries state was left to contend with state, and clan with clan in the several states. The result was chronic misrule, and misery to the masses of the people, with frequent famines. Secondly, we must take into account the institution of polygamy, with the low status assigned to woman, and the many restraints put upon her. In the ancient poems, indeed, there are a few pieces which are true love songs, and express a high appreciation of the virtue of their subjects; but there are many more which tell a different tale. The intrigues, quarrels, murders, and grossnesses that grew out of this social condition it is difficult to conceive, and would be impossible to detail. Thirdly, we must take into account the absence of strong and definite religious beliefs, properly so called, which has always been a characteristic of the Chinese people. We are little troubled, of course, with heresies, and are not shocked by the outbreaks of theological zeal; but where thought as well as action does not reach beyond the limits of earth and time, we do not find man in his best estate. We miss the graces and consolations of faith; we have human efforts and ambitions, but they are unimpregnated with divine impulses and heavenly aspirings.

Confucius appeared, according to Mencius, one of his most distinguished followers (371-288 B.C.), at a crisis in the nation’s history. "The world," he says, "had fallen into decay, and right principles had disappeared. Perverse discourses and oppressive deeds were waxen rife. Ministers murdered their rulers, and sons their fathers. Confucius was frightened by what he saw,—and he undertook the work of reformation."

The sage was born, according to the historian Sze-ma Ts’in, in the year 550 B.C. ; according to Kung-yang and Kuh-liang, two earlier commentators on his Annals of Lu, in 551 ; but all three agree in the month and day assigned to his birth, which took place in winter. His clan name was K’ung, and it need hardly be stated that Confucius is merely the Latinized form of K’ung Fu-tze, meaning "the philosopher or master K’ung." He was a native of the state of Lu, a part of the modern Shan-tung, embracing the present department of Yen-chow and other portions of the province. Lu had a great name among the other states of Chow, its marquises being descended from the duke of Chow, the legislator and consolidator of the dynasty which had been founded by his father and brother, the famous kings W_n and Wu. Confucius’s own ancestry is traced up, through the sovereigns of the previous dynasty of Shang to Hwang-ti, whose figure looms out through the mists of fable in prehistoric times. A scion of the house of Shang, the surname of which was Tze, was invested by King Wu with the dukedom of Sung in the present province of Honan. There, in the Tze line, towards the end of the 8th century B.C., we find a K’ung Kia, whose posterity, according to the rules for the dropping of surnames, became the K’ung clan. He was a high officer of loyalty and probity, and unfortunately for himself had a wife of extraordinary beauty. Hwa Tuh, another high officer of the duchy, that he might get this lady into his possession, brought about the death of K’ung Kia, and was carrying his prize in a carriage to his own palace, when she strangled herself on the way. The K’ung family, however, became reduced, and by-and-by its chief representative moved from Sung to Lu, where in the early part of the 6th century we meet with Shuh-liang Heih, the father of Confucius, as commandant of the district of Tsow, and an officer renowned for his feats of strength and daring.

There was thus no grander lineage in China than that of Confucius; and on all his progenitors, since the throne of Shang passed from their line, with perhaps one exception, he could look back with complacency. He was the son of Heih’s old age. That officer, when over seventy years, and having already nine daughters and one son, because that son was a cripple, sought an alliance with a gentleman of the Yen clan, who had three daughters. The father submitted to them Heih’s application, saying that, though he was old and austere, he was of most illustrious descent, and they need have no misgivings about him. Ching-tsai, the youngest of the three, observed that it was for their father to decide in the case. "You shall marry him then," said the father, and accordingly she became the bride of the old man, and in the next year the mother of the sage. It is one of the undesigned coincidences which confirm the credibility of Confucius’s history, that his favourite disciple was a scion of the Yen clan.

Heih died in the child’s third year, leaving his family in straitened circumstances. Long afterwards, when Confucius was complimented on his acquaintance with many arts, he accounted for it on the ground of the poverty of his youth, which obliged him to acquire a knowledge of matters belonging to a mean condition. When he was five or six, people took notice of his fondness for playing with his companions at setting out sacrifices, and at postures of ceremony. He tells us himself that at fifteen his mind was set on learning; and at nineteen, according to the ancient and modern practice in China, in regard to early unions, he was married,—his wife being from his ancestral state of Sung. A son, the only one, so far as we know, that he even had, was born in the following year; but he had subsequently two daughters. Immediately after his marriage we find him employed under the chief of the Ki clan to whose jurisdiction the district of Tsow belonged, first as keeper of stores, and then as superintendent of parks and herds. Mencius says that he undertook such mean offices because of his poverty, and distinguished himself by the efficiency with which he discharged them, without any attempt to become rich.

In his twenty-second year Confucius commenced his labours as a teacher. He did so at first, probably, in a humble way; but a school, not of boys to be taught the elements of learning, but of young and inquiring spirits who wished to be instructed in the principles of right conduct and government, gradually gathered round him. He accepted the substantial aid of his disciples; but he rejected none who could give him even the smallest fee, and he would retain none who did not show earnestness and capacity. "When I have presented," he said, "one corner of a subject, and the pupil cannot of himself make out the other three, I do not repeat my lesson."

Two years after, his mother died, and he buried her in the same grave with his father. Some idea of what his future life was likely to be was already present to his mind. It was not the custom of antiquity to raise any tumulus over graves, but Confucius resolved to innovate in the matter. He would be travelling, he said, to all quarters of the kingdom, and must therefore have a mound by which to recognize his parents’ resting-place. He returned home from the interment alone, having left his disciples to complete this work. They were long in rejoining him, and had then to tell him that they had been detained by a heavy fall of rain, which threw down the first product of their labour. He burst into tears, and exclaimed, "Ah ! they did not raise mounds over their graves in antiquity." His affection for the memory of his mother and dissatisfaction with his own innovation on ancient customs thus blended together; and we can sympathize with his tears. For the regular period of 27 months, commonly spoken of as three years, he observed all the rules of mourning. When they were over he allowed five more days to elapse before he would take his lute, of which he had been devotedly fond, in his hands. He played, but when he tried to sing to the accompaniment of the instrument, his feelings overcame him.

For some years after this our information about Confucius is scanty. Hints, indeed, occur of his devotion to the study of music and of ancient history; and we can perceive that his character was more and more appreciated by the principal men of Lu. He had passed his thirtieth year when, as he tells us, "he stood firm" in his convictions on all the subjects to the learning of which he had bent his mind fifteen years before. In 517 B.C. two scions of one of the principal houses in Lu joined the company of his disciples in consequence of the dying command of its chief; and being furnished with the means by the marquis of the state, he made a visit with them to the capital of the kingdom. There he examined the treasures of the royal library, and studied the music which was found in its highest style at the court. There, too, according to Szema Ts’in, he had several interviews with Lao-tze, the father of Taoism. It is characteristic of the two men, that the latter, a transcendental dreamer, appears to have thought little of his visitor, while Confucius, an inquiring thinker, was profoundly impressed with him.

On his return to Lu, in the same year, that state fell into great disorder. The marquis was worsted in a struggle with his ministers, and fled to the neighbouring state of Ts’i. Thither also went Confucius, for he would not countenance by his presence the men who had driven their ruler away. He was accompanied by many of his disciples; and as they passed by the T’ai Mountain, an incident occurred, which may be narrated as a specimen of the way in which he communicated to them his lessons. The attention of the travellers was arrested by a woman weeping and wailing at a grave. The sage stopped, and sent one of his followers to ask the reason of her grief. "My husband’s father" said she, "was killed here by a tiger, and my husband also, and now my son has met the same fate." Being asked why she did not leave so fatal a spot, she replied that there was there no oppressive government. "Remember this," said Confucius to his disciples, "remember this, my children, oppressive government is fiercer and more feared than a tiger."

He did not find in Ts’i a home to his liking. The marquis of the state was puzzled how to treat him. The teacher was not a man of rank, and yet the prince felt that he ought to give him more honour than rank could claim. Some counsellors of the court spoke of him as "impracticable and conceited, with a thousand peculiarities." It was proposed to assign to him a considerable revenue, but he would not accept it while his counsels were not followed. Dissatisfactions ensued, and he went back to Lu.

There for fifteen more years he continued in private life, prosecuting his studies, and receiving many accessions to his disciples. He had a difficult part to play with the different parties in the state, but he adroitly kept himself aloof from them all; and at last, in his fifty-second year, he was made chief magistrate of the city of Chung-too. A marvellous reformation, we are told, forthwith ensued in the manners of the people; and the marquis, a younger g brother of the one that fled to Ts’i and died there, called him to higher office. He was finally appointed minister of crime,—and there was an end of crime. Two of his disciples at the same time obtained influential positions in the two most powerful clans of the state, and co-operated with him. He signalized his vigour by the punishment of a great officer and in negotiations with the state of Ts’i. He laboured to restore to the marquis his proper authority, and as an important step to that end, to dismantle the fortified cities where the great chiefs of clans maintained themselves like the barons of feudal Europe. For a couple of years he seemed to be master of the situation. "He strengthened the ruler," it is said, "and repressed the barons. A transforming government went abroad. Dishonesty and dissoluteness hid their heads. Loyalty and good faith became the characteristics of the men, and chastity and docility those of the women. He was the idol of the people, and flew in songs through their mouths."

The sky of bright promise was soon overcast. The marquis of Ts’i and his advisers saw that if Confucius were allowed to prosecute his course, the influence of Lu would become supreme throughout the kingdom, and Ts’i would be the first to suffer. A large company of beautiful women, trained in music and dancing, and a troop of fine horses, were sent to Lu. The bait took; the women were welcomed, and the sage was neglected. The marquis forgot the lessons of the master, and yielded supinely to the fascinations of the harem. Confucius felt that he must leave the state. The neglect of the marquis to send round, according to rule, among the ministers portions of the flesh after a great sacrifice, furnished a plausible reason for leaving the court. He withdrew, though very unwillingly and slowly, hoping that a change would come over the marquis and his counsellors, and a message of recall be sent to him. But no such message came; and he went forth in his fifty-sixth year to a weary period of wandering among various states.

It may be well to pause here in the sketch of his life, and consider what his object and hope had been.

A disciple once asked him what he would consider the first thing to be done, if intrusted with the government of a state. His reply was, "The rectification of names." When told that such a thing was wide of the mark, he held to it, and indeed his whole social and political system was wrapped up in the saying. He had told the marquis of Ts’i that good government obtained when the ruler was ruler, and the minister minister; when the father was father, and the son son. Society, he considered, was an ordinance of heaven, and was made up of five relationships,— ruler and subject, husband and wife, father and son, elder brothers and younger, and friends. There was rule on the one side of the first four, and submission on the other. The rule should be in righteousness and benevolence; the submission in righteousness and sincerity. Between friends the mutual promotion of virtue should be the guiding principle. It was true that the duties of the several relations were being continually violated by the passions of men, and the social state had become an anarchy. But Confucius had confidence in the preponderating goodness of human nature, and in the power of example in superiors. "Not more surely," he said, "does the grass bend before the wind than the masses yield to the will of those above them." Given the model ruler, and the model people would forthwith appear. And he himself could make the model ruler. He could tell the princes of the states what they ought to be; and he could point them to examples of perfect virtue in former times,—to the sage founders of their own dynasty; to the sage T’ang, who had founded the previous dynasty of Shang; to the sage Yu, who first established a hereditary kingdom in China; and to the greater sages still who lived in a more distant golden age. With his own lessons and those patterns, any ruler of his day, who would listen to him, might reform and renovate his own state, and his influence would break forth beyond its limits till the face of the whole kingdom should be filled with a multitudinous relation-keeping, well-fed, happy people. "If any ruler," he once said, "would submit to me as his director for twelve months, I should accomplish something considerable; and in three years I should attain the realization of my hopes." Such were the ideas, the dreams of Confucius. But he had not been able to get the ruler of his native state to listen to him. His sage counsels had melted away before the glance of beauty and the pomps of life.

His professed disciples amounted to 3000, and among them were between 70 and 80 whom he described as "scholars of extraordinary ability." The most attached of them were seldom long away from him. They stood or sat reverently by his side, watched the minutest particulars of his conduct, studied under his direction the ancient history, poetry, and rites of their country, and treasured up every syllable which dropped from his lips. They have told us how he never shot at a bird perching nor fished with a net, the creatures not having in such a case a fair chance for their lives; how he conducted himself in court and among villagers; how he ate his food, and lay in his bed, and sat in his carriage; how he rose up before the old man and the mourner; how he changed countenance when it thundered, and when he saw a grand display of viands at a feast. He was free and unreserved in his intercourse with them, and was hurt once when they seemed to think that he kept back some of his doctrines from them. Several of them were men of mark among the statesmen of the time, and it is the highest testimony to the character of Confucius that he inspired them with feelings of admiration and reverence. It was they who set the example of speaking of him as the greatest of mortal men; it was they who struck the first notes of that paean which has gone on resounding to the present day.

Confucius was, it has been seen, in his fifty-sixth year when he left Lu; and thirteen years elapsed ere he returned to it. In this period were comprised his travels among the different states, when he hoped, and ever hoped in vain, to meet with some prince who would accept him as his counsellor, and initiate a government that should become the centre of an universal reformation. Several of the princes were willing to entertain and support him; but for all that he could say, they would not change their ways.

His first refuge was in Wei, a part of the present Ho-nan, the marquis of which received him kindly; but he was a weak man, ruled by his wife, a woman notorious for her accomplishments and wickedness. In attempting to pass s from Wei to another state, Confucius was set upon by a mob, which mistook him for an officer who had made himself hated by his oppressive deeds. He himself was perfectly calm amid the danger, though his followers were filled with alarm. They were obliged, however, to retrace their way to Wei, and he had there to appear before the marchioness, who wished to see how a sage looked. There was a screen between them at the interview, such as the present regent-empresses of China use in giving audience to their ministers; but Tze-lu, one of his principal disciples, was indignant that the master should have demeaned himself to be near such a woman, and to pacify him Confucius swore an oath appealing to Heaven to reject him if he had acted improperly. Soon afterwards he left the state.

Twice again, during his protracted wanderings, he was placed in imminent peril, but he manifested the same fearlessness, and expressed his confidence in the protection of Heaven till his course should be run. On one of the occasions he and his company were in danger of perishing from want, and the courage of even Tze-lu gave way. "Has the superior man, indeed, to endure in this way?" he asked. "The superior man may have to endure want," was the reply, "but he is still the superior man. The small man in the same circumstances loses his self-command."

While travelling about, Confucius repeatedly came across recluses,—a class of men who had retired from the world in disgust. That there was such a class gives us a striking glimpse into the character of the age. Scholarly, and of good principles, they had given up the conflict with the vices and disorder that prevailed. But they did not understand the sage, and felt a contempt for him struggling on against the tide, and always hoping against hope. We get a tine idea of him from his encounters with them. Once he was looking about for a ford, and sent Tze-lu to ask a man who was at work in a neighbouring field where it was. The man was a recluse, and having found that his questioner was a disciple of Confucius, he said to him: "Disorder in a swelling flood spreads over the kingdom, and no one is able to repress it. Than follow a master who withdraws from one ruler and another that will not take his advice, had you not better follow those who withdraw from the world altogether?" With these words he resumed his hoe, and would give no information about the ford. Tze-lu went back, and reported what the man had said to the master, who observed: "It is impossible to withdraw from the world, and associate with birds and beasts that have no affinity with us. With whom should I associate but with suffering men? The disorder that prevails is what requires my efforts. If right principles ruled through the kingdom, there would be no necessity for me to change its state." We must recognize in those words a brave heart and a noble sympathy. Confucius would not abandon the cause of the people. He would hold on his way to the end. Defeated he might be, but he would be true to his humane and righteous mission.

It was in his sixty-ninth year, 483 B.C., that Confucius returned to Lu. One of his disciples, who had remained in the state, had been successful in the command of a military expedition, and told the prime minister that he had learned his skill in war from the master,—urging his recall, and that thereafter mean persons should not be allowed to come between the ruler and him. The state was now in the hands of the son of the marquis whose neglect had driven the sage away; but Confucius would not again take office. Only a few years remained to him, and he devoted them to the completion of his literary tasks, and the delivery of his lessons to his disciples.

The next year was marked by the death of his son, which he bore with equanimity. His wife had died many years before, and it jars upon us to read how he then commanded the young man to hush his lamentations of sorrow. We like him better when he mourned, as has been related, for his own mother. It is not true, however, as has often been said, that he had divorced his wife before her death. The death of his favourite disciple, Yen Hwui, in 481 B.C., was more trying to him. Then he wept and mourned beyond what seemed to his other followers the bounds of propriety, exclaiming that Heaven was destroying him. His own last year, 478 B.C., dawned on him with the tragic end of his next beloved disciple, Tze-lu. Early one morning, we are told, in the fourth month, he got up, and with his hands behind his back, dragging his staff, he moved about his door, crooning over—

"The great mountain must crumble,
The strong beam must break,
The wise man must wither away like a plant."

Tze-kung heard the words, and hastened to him. The master told him a dream of the previous night, which, he thought, presaged his death. "No intelligent ruler, he said, arises to take me as his master. My time has come to die." So it was. He took to his bed, and after seven days expired. Such is the account we have of the last days of the sage of China. His end was not unimpressive, but it was melancholy. Disappointed hopes made his soul bitter. No wife nor child was by to do the offices of affection, nor was the expectation of another life with him, when he passed away from among men. He uttered no prayer, and he betrayed no apprehension. Years before, when he was very ill, and Tze-lu asked leave to pray for him, he expressed a doubt whether such a thing might be done, and added, "I have prayed for a long time." Deep-treasured now in his heart may have been the thought that he had served his generation by the will of God; but he gave no sign.

When their master thus died, his disciples buried him with great pomp. A multitude of them built huts near his grave, and remained there, mourning as for a father, for nearly three years; and when all the rest were gone, Tze-kung, the last of his favourite three, continued alone by the grave for another period of the same duration. The news of his death went through the states as with an electric thrill. The man who had been neglected when alive seemed to become all at once an object of unbounded admiration. The tide began to flow which has hardly ever ebbed during three-and-twenty centuries.

The grave of Confucius is in a large rectangle separated from the rest of the K’uug cemetery, outside the city of K’iuh-fow. A magnificent gate gives admission to a fine avenue, lined with cypress trees and conducting to the tomb, a large and lofty mound, with a marble statue in front, bearing the inscription of the title given to Confucius under the Sung dynasty:—"The most sagely ancient Teacher; the all-accomplished, all-informed King." A little in front of the tomb, on the left and right, are smaller mounds over the graves of his son and grandson, from the latter of whom we have the remarkable treatise called The Doctrine of the Mean. All over the place are imperial tablets of different dynasties, with glowing tributes to the one man whom China delights to honour, and on the right of the grandson’s mound is a small house said to mark the place of the hut where Tze-kung passed his nearly five years of loving vigil. On the mound grow cypresses, acacias, what is called "the crystal tree," said not to be elsewhere found, and the Achillea, the plant whose stalks were employed in ancient times for purposes of divination.

The adjoining city is still the home of the K’ung family; and there are said to be in it between 40,000 and 50,000 of the descendants of the sage. The present chief of the family is in the line of the 75th generation, and has large estates by imperial gift, with the title of "Duke by imperial appointment and hereditary right, continuator of the sage." It is thus no empty honour which is still given by the sovereigns of China to Confucius, in the persons of his descendants

The dynasty of Chow finally perished two centuries and a quarter after the death of the sage at the hands of the first historic emperor of the nation,—the first of the dynasty of Ts’in, who swept away the foundations of the feudal system, and laid those of the despotic rule which was subsequently and gradually matured, and continues to the present day. State after state went down before his blows but the name and followers of Confucius were the chief obstacles in his way. He made an effort to destroy the memory of the sage from off the earth, consigning to the flames all the ancient books from which he drew his rules and examples (save one), and burying alive hundreds of scholars who were ready to swear by his name. But Confucius could not be so extinguished. The tyranny of Ts’in was of short duration; and the next dynasty, that of it Han while entering into the new China, found its surest w strength in doing honour to his name, and trying to gather up the wreck of the ancient books. It is a great and a difficult undertaking to determine what there was about Confucius to secure for him the influence which he has wielded. Reference has been made to his literary tasks; but the study of them only renders the undertaking more difficult. He left no writings in which he detailed the principles of his moral and social system. The Doctrine of the Mean, by his grandson Tze-sze, and The Great Learning, by Tsang Sin, the most profound, perhaps, of his disciples, give us the fullest information on that subject, and contain many of his sayings. The Lun Yu, or Analects, "Discourses and Dialogues," is a compilation in which a many of his disciples must have taken part, and has great value as a record of his ways and utterances; but its chapters are mostly disjecta membra, affording faint traces of any guiding method or mind. Mencius, Hsiin K’ing, and writers of the Han dynasty, whose works, however, are more or less apocryphal, tell us much about him and his opinions, but all in a loose and unconnected way. No Chinese writer has ever seriously undertaken to compare him with the philosophers and sages of other nations.

The sage, probably, did not think it necessary to put down many of his own thoughts in writing, for he said of himself that he was "a transmitter, and not a maker." Nor did he lay claim to have any divine revelations. He was not born, he declared, with knowledge, but was fond of antiquity, and earnest in seeking knowledge there. The rule of life for men in all their relations, he held, was to be found within themselves. The right development of that rule, in the ordering not of the individual only, but of society, was to be found in the words and institutions of the ancient sages.

China it has already been observed, had a literature before Confucius. All the monuments of it, however, were in danger of perishing through the disorder into which the kingdom had fallen. The feudal system that had subsisted for more than 1500 years had become old. Confucius did not see this—did not see how

"The old order changeth, giving place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world."

It was impossible that in his circumstances he should see it China was in his eyes drifting from its ancient mooring drifting on a sea of storms "to hideous ruin and combustion," and the expedient that occurred to him to arrest the evil was to gather up and preserve the records of antiquity, illustrating and commending them by his own teachings. For this purpose he lectured to his disciples on the histories, poems, and constitutional works of the nation. What he thus did was of inestimable value to his own countrymen, and all other men are indebted to him for what they know of China before his time, though all the contents of the ancient works have not come down to us.

He wrote, we are told, a preface to the Shu King, or Book of Historical Documents. The preface is, in fact, only a schedule, without any remark by Confucius himself, giving the names of 100 books, of which it consisted. Of these we now possess 59, the oldest going back to the 23rd century, and the latest dating in the 8th century B.C. The credibility of the earlier portions, and the genuineness of several of the documents have been questioned, but the collection as a whole is exceedingly valuable.

The Ski King, or Ancient Poems, as existing in his time, or compiled by him (as generally stated, contrary to the evidence in the case), consisted of 311 pieces, of which we possess 305. The latest of them dates 585 years B.C., and the oldest of them ascends perhaps twelve centuries higher. It is the most interesting book of ancient poetry in the world, and many of the pieces are really fine ballads Confucius was wont to say that he who was not acquainted with the Shi was not fit to be conversed with, and that the study of it would produce a mind without a single depraved thought. This is nearly all we have from him about the poems.

The Li, or Books of Rites and Ancient Ceremonies and of Institutions, chiefly of the Chow dynasty, have come down to us in a sadly mutilated condition. They are still more than sufficiently voluminous, but they were edited, when recovered under the Han dynasty, with so many additions, that it is hardly worth while to speak of them in connection with Confucius, though much of what was added to them is occupied with his history and sayings.

Of all the ancient books not one was more prized by him than the Yih King, or "The Book of Changes," the rudiments of which are assigned to Fuh-hsi in the 30th century B. C. Those rudiments, however, are merely the 8 trigrams and 64 diagrams, composed of a whole and a broken line (-------,--------) without any text or explanation of them earlier than the rise of the Chow dynasty. The leather thongs, by which the tablets of Confucius’s copy were tied together, were thrice worn out by his constant handling. He said that if his life were lengthened he would give fifty years to the study of the Yih, and might then be without great faults. This has come down to us entire. If not intended from the first for purposes of divination, it was so used both before and after Confucius, and on that account it was exempted, through the superstition of the emperor of the Ts’in dynasty, from the flames. It is supposed to give a theory of the phenomena of the physical universe, and of moral and political principles by the trigrams and the different lines and numbers of the diagrams of Fuh-hi. Almost every sentence in it is enigmatic. As now published, there are always subjoined to it certain appendixes, which are ascribed to Confucius himself. Pythagoras and he were contemporaries, and in the fragments of the Samian philosopher about the "elements of numbers as the elements of realities" there is a remarkable analogy with much of the Yih. No Chinese critic or foreign student of Chinese literature has yet been able to give a satisfactory account of the book.

But a greater and more serious difficulty is presented by his last literary labour, the work claimed by him as his own, and which has already been referred to more than once as the Annals of Lu. Its title is the Ch’un Ts’tu, or "Spring and Autumn," the events of every year being digested under the heads of the four seasons, two of which are used by synecdoche for the whole. Mencius held that the composition of the Ch’un Ts’iu was as great a work as e Yu’s regulation of the waters of the deluge with which the Shu King commences, and did for the face of society what the earlier labour did for the face of nature. This work also has been preserved nearly entire, but it is excessively meagre. The events of 242 years barely furnish an hour or two’s reading. Confucius’s annals do not bear a greater proportion to the events which they indicate than the headings in our Bibles bear to the contents of the chapters to which they are prefixed. Happily Tso K’iu-ming took it in hand to supply those events, incorporating also others with them, and continuing his narratives over some additional years, so that through him the history of China in all its states from year to year, for more than two centuries and a half, lies bare before us. Tso never challenges the text of the master as being he incorrect, yet he does not warp or modify his own narratives to make them square with it; and the astounding fact is that when we compare the events with the summary of them, we must pronounce the latter misleading in the extreme. Men are charged with murder who were not guilty of it, and base murders are related as if they had been natural deaths. Villains, over whose fate the reader rejoices, are put down as victims of vile treason, and those who dealt with them as he would have been glad to do are subjected to horrible executions without one word of sympathy. Ignoring, concealing, and misrepresenting are the characteristics of the Spring and Autumn.

And yet this work is the model for all historical summaries in China. The want of harmony between the facts and the statements about them is patent to all scholars and it is the knowledge of this, unacknowledged to themselves, which has made the literati, down to the present day labour with an astonishing amount of fruitless ingenuity and learning to find in individual words, and the turn of every sentence, some mysterious indication of praise or blame. But the majority of them will admit no flaw in the sage or in his annals. His example in the book has been very injurious to his country. One almost wishes that critical reasons could be found for denying its authenticity. Confucius said that "by the Spring and Autumn men would know him and men would condemn him." It certainly obliges us to make a large deduction from our estimate of his character and of the beneficial influence which he has exerted. The examination of his literary labours does not on the whole increase our appreciation of him. We get a higher idea of the man from the accounts which his disciples have given us of his intercourse and conversations with them, and the attempts which they made to present his teachings in some systematic form. If he could not arrest the progress of disorder in his country, nor throw out principles which should be helpful in guiding it to a better state under some new constitutional system, he gave important lessons for the formation of individual character, and the manner in which the duties in the relations of society should be discharged.

Foremost among these we must rank his distinct enunciation of "the golden rule," deduced by him from his study of man's mental constitution. Several times he gave that rule in express words:—"What you do not like when done to yourself do not do to others." The peculiar nature of the Chinese language enabled him to express this rule by one character, which for want of a better term we may translate in English by "reciprocity." When the ideagram is looked at, it tells its meaning to the eye,—"a thing seen weightier than a thing heard." It is composed of two other characters, one denoting "heart," and the other—itself composite—denoting "as." Tze-kung once asked if there were any one word which would serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life, and the master replied, yes, naming this character (_____, shu), the "as heart," my heart, that is, in sympathy with yours; and then he added his usual explanation of it, which has been given above. It has been said that he only gave the rule in a negative form, but he understood it also in its positive and most comprehensive force, and deplored, on one occasion at least, that he had not himself always attained to taking the initiative in doing to others as he would have them do to him.

Another valuable contribution to ethical and social science was the way in which he inculcated the power of example, and the necessity of benevolence and righteousness in all who were in authority. 1200 years before he was born, an ancient hero and king had proclaimed in China: "The great God has conferred on the people a moral sense, compliance with which would show their nature invariably right. To cause them tranquilly to pursue the course which it indicates is the task of the sovereign." Confucius knew the utterance well; and he carried out the principle of it, and insisted on its application in all the relations of society. He taught emphatically that a bad man was not fit to rule. As a father or a magistrate, he might wield the instruments of authority, and punish the transgressors of his laws, but no forth-putting of force would countervail the influence of his example. On the other hand, it only needed virtue in the higher position to secure it in the lower. This latter side of his teaching is far from being complete and correct, but the former has, no doubt, been a check on the "powers that be," both in the family and the state ever since Confucius became the acknowledged sage of his country. It has operated both as a restraint upon evil, and a stimulus to good.

A few of his more characteristic sayings may here be given, the pith and point of which attest his discrimination of character, and show the tendencies of his views:—

"What the superior man seeks is in himself; what the small man seeks is in others."

"The superior man is dignified, but does not wrangle; social, but not a partisan. He does not promote a man simply because of his words, nor does he put good words aside because of the man."

"A poor man who does not matter, and a rich man who is not proud, are passable characters; but they are not equal to the poor who yet are cheerful, and the rich who yet love the rules of propriety.’

"Learning, undigested by thought, is labour lost; thought, unassisted by learning, is perilous."

"In style all that is required is that it convey the meaning."

"Extravagance leads to insubordination, and parsimony to meanness. It is better to be mean than insubordinate."

"A man can enlarge his principles; principles do not enlarge the man." That is, man is greater than any system of thought."

"The cautious seldom err."

Sententious sayings like these have gone far to form the ordinary Chinese character. Hundreds of thousands of the literati can repeat every sentence in the classical books; the masses of the people have scores of the Confucian maxims, and little else of an ethical nature, in their memories,—and with a beneficial result.

Confucius laid no claim, it has been seen, to divine revelations. Twice or thrice he did vaguely intimate that he had a mission from heaven, and that until it was accomplished he was safe against all attempts to injure him ; but his teachings were singularly devoid of reference to anything but what was seen and temporal. Man as he is, and the duties belonging to him in society, were all that lie concerned himself about. Man’s nature was from God; the harmonious acting out of it was obedience to the will of God; and the violation of it was disobedience. But in affirming this, there was a striking difference between his language and that of his own ancient models. In the King the references to the Supreme Being are abundant; there is an exulting awful recognition of Him as the almighty personal Ruler, who orders the course of nature and providence. With Confucius the vague, impersonal term, Heaven, took the place of the divine name. There is no glow of piety in any of his sentiments. He thought that it was better that men should not occupy themselves with anything but themselves.

There were, we are told in the Analects, four things of which he seldom spoke—extraordinary things, feats of strength, rebellious disorder, and spiritual beings. Whatever the institutions of Chow prescribed about the services to be paid to the spirits of the departed, and to other spirits, he performed reverently, up to the letter; but at the same time, when one of the ministers of Lu asked him what constituted wisdom, he replied: "To give one’s self earnestly to the duties due to men, and while respecting spiritual beings, to keep aloof from them,—that may be called wisdom."

But what belief underlay the practice, as ancient as the first foot-prints of history in China, of sacrificing to the spirits of the departed? Confucius would not say. There was no need, in his opinion, to trouble the mind about it. "While you cannot serve men," he replied to the inquiry of Tze-lu, "how can you serve spirits?" And what becomes of a man’s own self, when he has passed from the stage of life? The oracle of Confucius was equally dumb on this question. While you do not know life," he said to the same inquirer, "what can you know about death?" Doubts as to the continued existence of the departed were manifested by many leading men in China before the era of Confucius. In the pages of Tso K’iu-ming, when men are swearing in the heat of passion, they sometimes pause, and rest the validity of their oaths on the proviso that the dead to whom they appeal really exist. The "expressive silence" of Confucius has gone to confirm this scepticism.

His teaching was thus hardly more than a pure secularism. He had faith in man, man made for society, but he did not care to follow him out of society, nor to present to him motives of conduct derived from the consideration of a future state. Good and evil would be recompensed by the natural issues of conduct within the sphere of time,—if not in the person of the actor, yet in the persons of his descendants. If there were any joys of heaven to reward virtue, or terrors of future retribution to punish vice, the sage took no heed of the one or the other.

A very remarkable man Confucius was, persistent and condensed, but neither his views nor his character were perfect. In the China then existing he saw terrible evils and disorders, which he set himself, in the benevolence of his heart, to remedy, but of one principal cause of its unhappy condition he had no idea. Near the beginning of this article, the existence of polygamy and the evils flowing from it were referred to. Confucius never appeared to give the subject a thought. We saw how he mourned on the death of his mother; but no generous word ever passed his lips about woman as woman, and apparently no chivalrous sentiment ever kindled in his bosom. Nor had he the idea of any progress or regeneration of society. The stars all shone to him in the heavens behind; none beckoned brightly before. It was no doubt the moral element of his teaching, springing out of his view of human nature, which attracted many of his disciples, and still holds the best part of the Chinese men of learning bound to him; but the conservative tendency of his lessons— nowhere so apparent as in the Ch’un Ts’iu—is the chief reason why successive dynasties have delighted to do him honour. (J. LE.)

The above article was written by James Legge, LL.D; missionary in Malacca and Hong Kong; Professor of Chinese at Oxford, 1875; author of The Notions of the Chinese concerning God and Spirits, and an edition of the Chinese classics.

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-23 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries