Patrick S. Bresnan, Awakening: An Introduction to the History of Eastern Thought, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, pp. 125-30
Unfortunately, we don't have a great deal of verifiable information about the life of Confucius. The sources that do exist are pretty bare bones, and much of what is commonly reported about the man is based on legend and conjecture. The earliest known biography of Confucius is a short entry in the Shiji, a collection of biographies written in the first century B.C.E. by the Chinese historian Sima Qian (Ssu-ma Ch'ien). Four centuries had elapsed between the death of Confucius and the writing of this biography; Sima Qian had to rely on scanty and unreliable sources.
A much better source is to be found in the words of Confucius himself. Although Confucius never wrote an autobiography (so far as we know), much of his teaching has been preserved. Confucius himself, though, was not moved to do a great deal of writing; most of what we believe to be his words are really nothing more than a collection of aphorisms written down and preserved by his disciples. These were gathered together in the Lun Yu, which we know in English as the Analects of Confucius.
Perhaps the best source of all for reliable insight into the life and character of Confucius is the Mencius (the Meng Zi), which is an exposition of the philosophy of Mencius, a devoted follower of Confucius, who added much to the total picture of what we call "Confucianism." Mencius was not a contemporary of Confucius—he lived about a century later—but he was close enough in time and association to have access to a great deal of reliable information about him. The Mencius is full of little insights about Confucius.
These three—the Analects, the Mencius, and the biography of Sima Qian—comprise our basic sources of information about Confucius, his life and his teaching, Other sources exist, but their accuracy is often questionable. From these various sources, taken as a whole, we can abstract a simple but reasonably credible account of the life of Confucius.
Let's begin with his name. Confucius, of course, was not his name; it is a Latinized version of the Chinese pronunciation, a practice popular in the West when Europeans first began to take scholarly interest in cultures other than their own. (It seems pretty quaint today. Imagine, for example, referring to Mao Zedong as Madocius.) The family name was Kung, and he became known as Kung Fu Zi (K'ung Fu-tzu in the Wade-Giles system). Kung Fu-tzu, in the hands of nineteenth-century Europeans, became Confucius. So, should we now revert to the more properly Chinese pronunciation? Perhaps so, but the Western world has become so used to saying "Confucius" that there seems to be little inclination to do this. Even "K'ung Fu-tzu" is a far cry from the actual Chinese. Thus, for the time being anyway, Confucius he shall remain.
Confucius was born, according to the Western calendar, in 551 B.C.E. His home region was the state of Lu, which more or less corresponds to the modern Shandong Province. This is a very populous region in the northeastern China that includes the large peninsula which forms the southern gateway to the Gulf of Po Dai. Then, as now, this area was very much at the center of Chinese life and culture. Not much is known about Confucius's early life. The family was not particularly well off, and this situation was made much worse by the death of his father when Confucius was only three years old. He was raised by his widowed mother, and claimed in later life to have known real poverty as a child. At nineteen he married, producing one son and two daughters. The family could claim some aristocratic ancestry, and this connection helped Confucius secure a government job around the time when he married. He worked within the bureaucracy of the state of Lu, first as the manager of a state granary, and later as the manager of some state-owned herds of cattle and sheep. Supposedly he did very well at both posts, but his heart was set on other things.
Undoubtedly Confucius had a brilliant mind, and also a winning personality. From an early age he had been very interested in learning, especially the study of the already ancient history and culture of his people. While still quite young, Confucius made something of a name for himself as a scholar. At the amazingly young age of twenty-two he gave up his bureaucratic post and opened his own school. This, of course, was not a school in the modern sense of the word; it was more a group of already educated young men from the better families who wished to associate closely with a master. It was probably much like the academies founded by such Greek philosophers as Plato and Aristotle. Confucius would draw on the traditional wisdom of China to teach his disciples about the principles of right living and right governing. He described himself as a transmitter, not an originator. Any sincere seeker was welcome, rich or poor, but presumably most of the disciples were from wealthy families, and Confucius was able to make a decent living doing what he loved most.
His career really took off when one of the leading nobles of Lu sent his own two sons to study with Confucius. This opened doors for him, and soon Confucius was associating with the movers and shakers of Lu. With his two noble students Confucius visited the capital city, and gained the respect of the Duke of Lu. What Confucius wanted most of all was to secure a government post which would make him the power behind the throne. Then he could put his ideas of right government into practice and transform Lu, or any other place willing to give him the chance, into a model of good government. "If any ruler would submit to me as his director for twelve months," he said, "I should accomplish something considerable; and in three years I should attain the realization of my hopes."
Unfortunately, Confucius never got the opportunity he longed for. This was largely due to the fact that high posts in government went only to members of the top noble families. Confucius did occupy for a few years the office which today we might call Minister of Justice, and while serving in this post he instituted some social reforms that attracted a fair amount of attention. However, a feud in the ruling family forced Confucius to temporarily flee the state of Lu, and he never again had an opportunity to hold high office.
Confucius would not return to his home district of Lu for twelve long years. During this time of self-imposed exile his was the life of an itinerant philosopher, accompanied by a small band of disciples. He was generally welcomed at the courts he visited, and shown high honor, but no one was willing to turn over the power of government to him. He yearned for the opportunity, though, and apparently felt rather bitter that no one recognized his genius. Commenting on the situation, his sense of frustration was sometimes obvious: "Am I a bitter gourd, fit only to hang out of the way, not good enough to eat?"
Confucius's ideas on the right ordering of society remained basically in the realm of theory. But he had started a fire that would never go out. For all time to come his name would be highly honored, and in time his system of values would be integrated into the very essence of Chinese social and political life. Confucius died in 479 B.C.E. at the age of seventy-three. He was buried near his native town; a shrine at the grave site remains even to this day an important pilgrimage place among the people of China.
The suffering of the common people was the central concern of Confucius. That point deserves to be emphasized. Confucius was a very compassionate man, and the suffering that he saw everywhere among the common people moved him to action. Much like that of his great contemporary, Shakyamuni Buddha, Confucius's teaching amounted to a solution to a problem, and at the root of the problem was the ubiquitous suffering of ordinary men and women who were the victims of the turmoil of the age.
As pointed out before, Confucius lived during a very stressful time in Chinese history. He was born into the later part of the Zhou Dynasty, the second of the great historical eras of Chinese civilization. The Zhou, named after the dynastic ruling family, was essentially a feudal era, and would eventually give way to the Han, during which dynasty China would be welded into a great unified empire.
The Han Dynasty in Chinese history plays a role similar to that of the Roman Empire in European history. But at the time Confucius was born all of that was still three centuries in the future. In Confucius's time the ruling Zhou no longer held the vast realm of China together as it had in former times. The tightly knit fabric of feudalism was unraveling. Petty wars, feuds, and class conflicts had become the order of the day. From our perspective we can see that Chinese society was evolving away from feudalism toward something new, but the transition was difficult. People of the time, not being any better than we are at seeing into the future, looked backward instead. Life in the time of the ancestors had been peaceful and orderly, but now it had become chaotic. The conclusion: the social order was sick; it was in a state of decline; the future would be even worse.
Confucius too looked back to a "golden age" when the feudal system had been strong, when everything had been in its appointed place and life was peaceful and prosperous. Undoubtedly he exaggerated the positive side of the picture somewhat, but he did study the history of the early Zhou with great thoroughness. He identified certain prominent figures of the era, "sages" as he called them, to whom he attributed almost divinely inspired wisdom. By carefully studying the lives and the works of these men, Confucius believed that he could determine the essence of their wisdom, and come to understand the essential elements of right governance. He would then be a teacher to his own troubled age, a transmitter of the wisdom of the ancients, and hopefully bring about a healing reformation of the social order. He would reveal the truth of Dao, which to Confucius meant the right "way" for men to live.
A thoroughgoing reformation was obviously necessary. Leadership at all levels of society was in a sorry state. Government, which should be the leader and protector of the people, was often oppressive instead. Nothing was worse than living under oppressive government. To emphasize this point Confucius told the story of the woman he happened upon one day weeping beside a gravesite. She told him that her husband had been killed by a tiger at that spot, and before that her husband's father had been killed at the same spot by the same tiger. "And now," she wept, "my only son has also been killed here by that tiger." Confucius asked her why she didn't go away from such a dangerous place. "Because," she answered, "in this place there is no oppressive government." "Remember that," said Confucius, "oppressive government is more terrible and more to be feared than a killer tiger."
To Confucius's mind, the overriding concern was order; that is, reestablishing order in society. But not just any kind of order would suffice; it must be a natural order. Confucius believed that there is a right ordering of society that is natural to it, in the same way that there is a right ordering to all of the things of nature. Human society had gotten out of harmony with the larger natural order of which it is a part. (Sound familiar?) We are part of a natural world in which all of the myriad elements, from wildflowers to stars, fit together in a perfectly ordered harmony. Everything is an expression of the working of the whole. The ancients had understood this, but their descendants, pursuing selfish interests, had strayed from the path.
Nothing in nature ever sets itself apart and operates in conflict with the universal harmony. Well, nothing, that is, until we come to the evolution of human society. And therein lies the problem. But it doesn't have to be that way. As the study of ancient society revealed to the mind of Confucius, human society properly led and properly ordered can exist in perfect harmony within the natural order. Man is a part of nature. And therefore human nature, in the judgement of Confucius, need not be in conflict with the natural order. Evil and selfish acts are a corruption of the innate tendency of man's nature to be in harmony with the universal order. Right leadership can reestablish that harmony.
So where to begin? Confucius would begin with the institution of the family. The family was seen as the basic unit of society; nothing was more important. In the Confucian system the importance of the family cannot be exaggerated. Individual families are the living cells which together make up the organism of society. Society is an extension of the family. In fact, the entire social order of China was regarded as being one great extended family. The ruler of the state was in effect the paterfamilias of this one great family. And he was expected to play the role and assume the duties appropriate to the father in this relationship.
In the Confucian system, though, the king "reigns," but he does not actually "rule." He is groomed from childhood to be a symbol, a father figure, a watchdog, in a sense, but the business of day to day governing was to be in the hands of carefully selected ministers. And these men, far from being the corrupt, self-serving nobles of Confucius's age, were to be a legion of "new men," chosen for their suitability and their dedication to the ideal of service. What a revolution that would be! Confucius would do nothing less than sweep away the entire predatory hereditary aristocracy, and replace it with a new non-hereditary aristocracy, one based on talent, compassion, and commitment to serving the needs of the common people. The character of this "new man" that Confucius envisioned was called junzi (chun-tzu); the achievement of junzi was, and still is, the heart and soul of the Confucian system.
But where in the world were such men to be found? Confucius could imagine that men of junzi were common is some idealized past age, but in his own troubled times such a one was as rare as a giant panda in the marketplace. Confucius was well aware of this dilemma, and thus his program of reform did not call for an overnight solution. In the Confucian program a new system of government necessitated a new system of education. In fact, there was no real system of education at all—the sons of noblemen were educated, if at all, by tutors and on-the-job training. Most of their time and energy went into mastering the arts of warfare. Confucius had no interest in this; he had a whole new plan in mind. Confucius would institute an actual system of education, an organized program of development spread out over many years. This program, based largely on study of the classics of Chinese literature, was designed to produce the new man of junzi. Confucius would take the malleable child, and through the right kind of education, which included the teacher as role model, he would create a man of superior humanistic learning, of refined personal manners, and the will to govern wisely and compassionately. And, most important of all, this new system of education was to be open to all! At least potentially it was to be open to all. Anyone who showed promise would be accepted, no matter what his rank in society.
Considering all of this, isn't it amazing that Confucius is sometimes criticized as being a defender of feudalism? What could in fact be more revolutionary, more non-feudal, than the system that he proposed? The charge grows out of a misunderstanding of Confucius's admiration for what he perceived to be the condition of society in the early days of the Zhou Dynasty. The social organization was undoubtedly very feudal in those days. What Confucius admired was the stability of society, the peace, the apparent respect for law and order, the harmony with nature; all of the things, in other words, that were painfully lacking in his own age. He attributed the felicity of the former time to the wisdom of its rulers, "sages," as he called them. And he saw his own role as being a transmitter of this ancient wisdom; he would be the bridge that would link his own troubled age with the wisdom of the past. But, it was not so much the form of government that he wanted to emulate, as it was the sage-like character of those entrusted with the actual task of governing. In other words, Confucius believed that he saw men of junzi in the past, and wanted to bring that ideal back to life in his own time. Of course, despite his modest denial, Confucius was far more than simply a transmitter. His system may have owed a debt to traditional values, but nothing like it had existed before. Within the body of Confucius lived a creative mind of the first order.
To sum up: the perpetual suffering of the common people had persuaded Confucius that the existing social order, founded as it was on rule by a corrupt and predatory aristocracy, was untenable. In its place he would establish an orderly society governed by men chosen for their superior ability and dedication to service. His new system of education would mold the best from all ranks of society into men of junzi. They would become not only the governors, but the living models for all members of society, and in this way health and order would be restored.