Confucius was born on 28 Septemeber 551 BCE in Lu, China, a province of the Zhou dynasty – near modern day Qufu. He was born in a period of religious and cultural turmoil, with the great Zhou dynasty in decline and being replaced by petty fiefdoms fighting for supremacy.
His family may have had aristocratic roots, but were relatively poor at the time of his birth. His father was a soldier who died when Confucius was just three years old. As a result, he was brought up by his mother, who kindled his love of learning and seeking wisdom. From a young age, he sought out teachers who could instruct him in all aspects of life. His all-round education involved become adept in the arts of archery, ritual, music, calligraphy, charioteering and arithmetic. He also studied history and poetry. Confucius was, in particular, fascinated with the moral and cultural precepts known as ‘Li.’
“At fifteen my heart was set on learning; at thirty I stood firm; at forty I had no more doubts; at fifty I knew the mandate of heaven; at sixty my ear was obedient; at seventy I could follow my heart’s desire without transgressing the norm.” – Confucius, The Anlects, ch. 2
Confucius as a teacher
After the death of his mother, Confucius spent three years in seclusion and bereavement; this enabled him to focus on perfecting his philosophic ideals. At the end of his period of seclusion, he became a teacher, teaching people from all classes in the ancient arts of Li. Confucius soon became the acknowledged expert in the art of Li and he became the chief sage to the Duke of Lu. However, the Duke of Lu was expelled from his city by a revolt of ministers. Confucius followed him into exile and spent the next 14 years working on his collection of ancient codes of conduct and morality.
“Isn’t it a pleasure to study and practice what you have learned? Isn’t it also great when friends visit from distant places? If one remains not annoyed when he is not understood by people around him, isn’t he a sage?”
The Analects, Chapter I
Confucius taught the importance of self-introspection. In particular, valuing the true and honest motive and performing one’s duty to the best of his ability.
“In archery we have something like the way of the superior man. When the archer misses the center of the target, he turns round and seeks for the cause of his failure in himself.”
Confucius, The Doctrine of the Mean
Confucius was widely loved by his students – breaking with tradition – he became friendly with them and got to know them on a personal level. He style of teaching also varied depending on their personalities and character traits. He was not stuck in a rigid mode of teaching but took an innovative approach which led to a real sense of loyalty amongst his students. Ironically, after his death, his teaching became heavily formalised and was often implemented quite rigidly.
Confucius became a champion of education, supporting the idea that everyone could benefit from, not just intellectual knowledge, but a rounded education which taught principles of self-development and service to the greater public good. His advice to would be rulers included:
“If you would govern a state of a thousand chariots (a middle-size state), you must pay strict attention to business, be true to your word, be economical in expenditure and love the people.” – The Anlects, ch. 1.
Despite his glowing reputation and an increasing number of students, Confucius often encountered difficulties from those who opposed him or were jealous of his influence. He tried for many years to put his ideas into practice, getting involved in public service. However, he became frustrated at the corruption and self-interest which was dominant in the courts of influence. Towards the end of his life, Confucius despaired at the possibility of ever returning society to justice and order. In his later years, he placed less emphasis on public service and instead, wrote prodigiously explaining his key concepts and teachings.
On 21 November 479 BCE, Confucius died from apparent natural causes in Qufu, China – he was 73 years old. One story says he predicted his own death after seeing a wounded antelope. In philosophic fashion he said of his imminent passing:
“The great mountain must collapse, the mighty beam must break, and the wise man wither like a plant.”
Although relatively unsuccessful in his own time, his philosophy took hold around 200BC and played a huge role in influencing future Chinese society and Chinese philosophy. The philosophic essence of his teachings can be seen in the following quote.
“To show forbearance and gentleness in teaching others; and not to revenge unreasonable conduct — this is the energy of southern regions, and the good man makes it his study. To lie under arms; and meet death without regret — this is the energy of northern regions, and the forceful make it their study. Therefore, the superior man cultivates a friendly harmony, without being weak — How firm is he in his energy!”
Confucius, The Doctrine of the Mean
Confucius did not claim miracles or any divinity but had great faith in the power of education, respect for the past, righteous conduct, and reform of corrupt practices. His own life was not particularly remarkable and he was beset by many challenges, such as the death of his parents and the political turmoil of his era. However, to Confucius, dealing with everyday difficulties was an essential part of reforming your character and becoming a better person.
Religion of Confucius
Although Confucius would be unaware of any religious teachings from outside China, he offered a variant of the ‘Golden Rule’ – a teaching which is considered to be at the heart of all religious and spiritual paths.
“What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”
His teachings on personal development and seeking the root of virtue from honest introspection also has parallels with the teachings of the Buddha who lived at a similar time in India (though they would have remained unaware of each other.) To some Confucius is considered a great spiritual teacher in the spirit of Rama, Zoroaster, Krishna, the Buddha and Mohammed.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of Confucius”, Oxford, UK www.biographyonline.net Published 28 November 2008. Last updated 9 February 2020.