Chinese philosophy
Ancient philosophy
Name: 孔丘 Kong Qiu
Birth: September 28, 551 BCE
Death: 479 BCE
School/tradition: Founder of Confucianism
Main interests: Moral philosophy, Social philosophy, Ethics
Notable ideas: Confucianism
Influences: Zhou Era Chinese Thought
Influenced: Nearly every Eastern Philosopher

Confucius (Chinese: 孔夫子; Pinyin: Kǒng Fū Zǐ; Wade-Giles: K'ung-fu-tzu, lit. "Master Kong," but most frequently referred to as Kongzi (Chinese: 孔子), traditionally September 28, 551 – 479 BCE) was a famous Chinese thinker and social philosopher, whose teachings and philosophy have deeply influenced East Asian life and thought[1].

His philosophy emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity. These values gained prominence in China over other doctrines, such as Legalism (法家) or Taoism (道家) during the Han Dynasty[2][3][4]. Confucius' thoughts have been developed into a system of philosophy known as Confucianism (儒家). It was introduced to Europe by the Jesuit Matteo Ricci, who was the first to Latinise the name as "Confucius" .

His teachings are known primarily through the Analects of Confucius (論語), a collection of "brief aphoristic fragments", which was compiled many years after his death. Modern historians do not believe that any specific documents can be said to have been written by Confucius [5][6] , but for nearly 2,000 years he was thought to be the editor or author of all the Five Classics[7][8] such as the Classic of Rites(editor), and the Spring and Autumn Annals (春秋) (author).



Personal life and family

At fifteen my heart was set on learning; (十五向學)
At thirty I stood firm; (三十而立)
At forty I had no more doubts; (四十而不惑)
At fifty I knew the mandate of heaven; (五十而知天命)
At sixty my ear was obedient; (六十而耳順)
At seventy I could follow my heart's desire without transgressing the norm. (七十而從心欲,不踰矩)
(Analects, translation by Charles Muller)[9]

According to tradition, Confucius was born in 551 BCE (during the Spring and Autumn Period, at the beginning of the Hundred Schools of Thought philosophical movement) in the city of Qufu, which was located in the Chinese State of Lu (now part of present-day Shandong Province and culturally and geographically close to the royal mansion of Zhou). He was born into a deposed noble family which had recently fled from the State of Song[10].

The Records of the Grand Historian (史記), compiled some 400 years later, indicate that Confucius was conceived out of wedlock (野合) [11]. His father was seventy, and his mother only fifteen at his birth. His father died when he was three[12], and he was brought up in poverty by his mother. His social ascendancy linked him to the growing class of Shì (士), a class between the old nobility and the common people. This class later became the prominent class of Intellectual because of the cultural and intellectual skills they shared[13].

As a child, Confucius was said to have enjoyed putting ritual vases on the sacrifice table[11]. He married to a young girl named Qi Quan (亓官) at the age of 19, and she had their first child Kong Li (孔鯉) when he was 20. In order to earn his family's living, he had even been shepherd, cowherd, clerk and book-keeper[14].When Confucius was 23, his mother died sending him to three years of mourning.

As a young man, he was a minor administrative manager in the State of Lu and rose to the position of Justice Minister (大司寇) when he was 53[15]. After two years of service for the state of Lu, Confucius resigned because he disapproved of the politics of his Duke.

According to the Analects of Confucius, the state of Lu was prosperous thanks, in part, to the wise administration of Confucius[citation needed]. This is unlikely as Confucius never held any major position in either Lu or anywhere else. There is a legend that the neighbouring state of Qi(齊) was worried that Lu was becoming too powerful. Qi then decided to sabotage Lu's reforms by sending one hundred good horses and eighty beautiful dancing girls to the Duke of Lu. The Duke of Lu then indulged himself in pleasure and did not attend to official duties for three days. At the sacrificial rites he did not give the counselors the meat in accordance to the rites. Confucius, felt sorrow for this poor courtesy, decided to leave Lu[11] [16].

Confucius then began a long journey (or set of journeys) around the small kingdoms of north-central China, including State of Wei (衛), Song (宋), Chen (陳) and Cai (蔡)[17]. He tried, unsuccessfully, to convince many different rulers of the correctness of his political beliefs and to see them implemented. He and his followers even were blocked between boundary of Chen and Cai, and almost fell into starvation[18]. The story says that when he was 68[15], Confucius returned home and spent the last years of his life teaching disciples and transmitting the old wisdom via a set of books called the Five Classics [19][20].

He lost his favorite disciples. Such kind of sorrow was too heavy to bear[21][22], and he sadly died in his 72 (or 73)[23].

The life history of Confucius is legendary, but the very ordinary nature of his story (and his lack of success[24]) lends it credibility.



In the Analects, Confucius presents himself as a "transmitter who invented nothing"[7]. He put the greatest emphasis on the importance of study[25][26], and it is the Chinese character for study that opens the text. In this respect, he is seen by Chinese people as the Greatest Master[27]. Far from trying to build a systematic theory of life and society or establish a formalism of rites, he wanted his disciples to think deeply for themselves and relentlessly study the outside world[28], mostly through the old scriptures and by relating past political events (like the Annals) or past feelings of common people (like the Book of Odes[29])[30].

In times of division, chaos, and endless wars between feudal states, he wanted to restore the Mandate of Heaven that could unify the "world" (i.e., China) and bestow peace and prosperity on the people[31]. Therefore, Confucius is often considered a great proponent of conservatism, but a closer look at what he proposes often shows that he used (and maybe twisted) past institutions and rites to push a new political agenda of his own: rulers (not lord of states) to be chosen on merit, not parentage[32][33], rulers who were devoted to their people, and rulers who reached for perfection[34]. Such a ruler would spread his own virtues to the people instead of imposing proper behavior with laws and rules[35].

One of the deepest teachings of Confucius, one of the hardest to understand from a Western point of view, may have been the superiority of exemplification over explicit rules of behavior. His ethics may be considered one of the greatest virtue ethics. This kind of "indirect" way to achieve a goal is used widely in his teachings by way of allusions, innuendo, and even tautology. This is why his teachings need to be examined and put into proper context in order to understand them[36][37]. A good example is found in this famous anecdote:

When the stables were burnt down, on returning from court, Confucius said, "Was anyone hurt?" He did not ask about the horses.
Analects X.11, tr. A. Waley

The anecdote is not long, but it is of paramount importance. In his time horses were perhaps 10 times more expensive than stablemen. By not asking about the horses, Confucius demonstrated his greatest priority: human beings. Thus, according to many Eastern and Western commentators, Confucius' teaching can be considered a Chinese variant of humanism[38].

Perhaps his most famous teaching was the Golden Rule:

Adept Kung asked: "Is there any one word that could guide a person throughout life?"
The Master replied: "How about 'shu': never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself?"

Analects XV.24, tr. David Hinton

Confucius' teachings were later turned into a very elaborate set of rules and practices by his numerous disciples and followers. In the centuries after his death, Mencius[39] and Xun Zi[40] both wrote important books, and in time, a philosophy was elaborated, which is known in the West as Confucianism. After more than a thousand years, the scholar Zhu Xi created a very different interpretation of Confucianism which is now called Neo-Confucianism, to distinguish it from the ideas expressed in the Analects. Neo-Confucianism held sway in China and Vietnam[41] until the 1800s.



Confucius (illustration from Myths & Legends of China, 1922, by E.T.C. Werner)
Confucius (illustration from Myths & Legends of China, 1922, by E.T.C. Werner)


Although Confucianism is often followed in a religious manner by the Chinese, arguments continue over whether it is a religion. Confucianism lacks an afterlife, any deities, and is unconcerned with spiritual matters such as the nature of the soul.

Confucius' principles gained wide acceptance primarily because of their basis in common Chinese opinion. He championed strong familial loyalty, ancestor worship, respect of elders by their children and of husbands by their wives, and the family as a basis for an ideal government. He expressed the well-known principle, "Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself" (similar to the Golden Rule). He also looked nostalgically upon earlier days, and urged the Chinese, particularly the politicians, to model themselves on earlier examples. "What the superior man seeks is in himself. What the mean man seeks is in others"



The Confucian theory of ethics is based on three important concepts:

While Confucius grew up, (禮 [礼]) referred to the three aspects of life: sacrificing to the gods, social and political institutions, and daily behavior. It was believed that originated from the heavens. Confucius argued that it flowed not from heaven but from humanity. He redefined to refer to all actions committed by a person to build the ideal society. , to Confucius, became every action by a person aiming to meet his surface desires. These can be either good or bad. Generally, attempts to obtain short term pleasure are bad while those, which in the long term try to make one's life better, are generally good. These concepts are about doing the proper thing at the proper time.

To Confucius, (義 [义]) was the origin of . can best be translated as righteousness. While doing things because of , one's own self-interest was not necessarily bad, one would be a better, more righteous person if one bases one's life upon following . This means that rather than pursuing one's own selfish interests, one should do what is right and moral. It is doing the right thing for the right reason. is based upon reciprocity. An example of living by is how one must mourn one's father and mother for three years after their death. Since they took care of the child for the first three years of one's life, one must reciprocate by living in mourning for three years.

Just as flows out of , so flows out of rén (仁). Ren can best be translated as kindness. His moral system was based upon empathy and understanding others, rather than divinely ordained rules. To live by rén was even better than living by the rules of . To live by rén one used another Confucian version of the Golden Rule: he argued that one must always treat others just as one would want others to treat you. Virtue under Confucius is based upon harmony with other people.

He applied an early version of the Golden Rule:



They must often change who would be constant in happiness or wisdom. Confucius' political thought is based upon his ethical thought. He argues that the best government is one that rules through "rites" and people's natural morality, rather than using bribery and force. He explained that this is one of the most important analects: 1. "If the people be led by laws, and uniformity sought to be given them by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame. If they be led by virtue, and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of shame, and moreover will become good." (Translated by James Legge){The Great Learning} This "sense of shame" is an internalisation of duty, where the punishment precedes the evil action, instead of following it in the form of laws as in Legalism.

While he supported the idea of the all-powerful Emperor, probably because of the chaotic state of China at his time, his philosophies contained a number of elements to limit the power of the rulers. He argued for according language with truth; thus honesty was of the most paramount importance. Even in facial expression, truth must always be represented. In discussing the relationship between a subject and his king (or a son and his father), he underlined the need to give due respect to superiors. This demanded that the inferior must give advice to his superior if the superior was considered to be taking the wrong course of action. This was built upon by his disciple Mencius to argue that if the king was not acting like a king, he would lose the Mandate of Heaven and be overthrown. Therefore, tyrannicide is justified because a tyrant is more a thief than a king. Attempted tyrannicide, however, is not justified. An oppresive government is more feared than a tiger. "When you have faults, do not fear to abandon them."

Quote: "What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others"

"With coarse rice to eat, with water to drink, and my bended arm for a pillow- I still have joy in the midst of these. Riches and honors acquired by unrighteousness are me as a floating cloud"- Confucius


Disciples and legacy

Popular image of Confucius as an object of veneration, Thian Hock Keng temple, Singapore.
Popular image of Confucius as an object of veneration, Thian Hock Keng temple, Singapore.

Confucius' disciples and his only grandson, Zisi, continued his philosophical school after his death. While relying heavily on Confucius' ethico-political system, two of his most famous disciples emphasized radically different aspects of his teachings. Mencius articulated the infinite goodness inherent in humanity, while Xun Zi underscored the realistic and materialistic aspects of Confucian thought.

During the Song Dynasty, the scholar Zhu Xi added ideas from Daoism and Buddhism into Confucianism. In his life, Zhu Xi was largely ignored but not long after his death his ideas became the new orthodox view on what Confucian texts actually meant. Modern historians view Zhu Xi as having created something rather different and call his way of thinking Neo-Confucianism. In the modern era, there are still some Confucian scholars (see New Confucianism) but during the Cultural Revolution, Confucianism was frequently attacked by leading figures in the Communist Party of China.

In modern times, Asteroid 7853 Confucius was named after him.

Quote: "Respect yourself and others will respect you"


Home town

Soon after Confucius' death, Qufu, his hometown, became a place of devotion and remembrance. It is still a major destination for cultural tourism, and many Chinese people visit his grave and the surrounding temples. In pan-China cultures, there are many temples where representations of Buddha, Lao Zi and Confucius are found together. There are also many temples dedicated to him, which have been used for Confucianist ceremonies.



Confucius' descendants were repeatedly identified and honored by successive imperial governments with titles of nobility and official posts. They were honored with the rank of a marquis thirty-five times since Gaozu of the Han Dynasty, and they were promoted to the rank of duke forty-two times from the Tang Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty. Emperor Xuanzong of Tang first bestowed the title of "Marquis Wenxuan" on Kong Sui of the 35th generation. In 1055, Emperor Zhenzong of Song first bestowed the title of "Duke Yansheng" (Traditional Chinese: 衍聖公; pinyin: Yǎnshèng gōng, literally "overflowing with sage") on Kong Zong of the 46th generation. Despite repeated dynastic change in China, the title of Duke Yansheng was bestowed upon successive generations of descendants until it was abolished by the Nationalist Government in 1935. The last holder of the title, Kung Te-cheng of the 77th generation, was appointed Sacrificial Official to Confucius.

Today, there are thousands of reputed descendants of Confucius. The main lineage fled from the Kong ancestral home in Qufu to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War. The current head of the household is Kung Te-cheng, a professor at National Taiwan University. He previously served in the Republic of China government as President of the Examination Yuan. Kung married Sun Qifang, the great-granddaughter of the Qing dynasty scholar-official and first president of Beijing University Sun Jianai, whose family created one of the first business combines in modern-day China, which included the largest flour mill in Asia, the Fou Foong Flour Company. The Qianlong Emperor married a daughter to Kong Xianpei of the 72nd generation, linking the Aisin-Gioro imperial house with the Kong family.



  1. Zhu 1983, pp. 181-260
  2. Ban 111, vol.56
  3. Gao 2003
  4. Chen 2003
  5. Zhang 1899, p. 111
  6. Liu 2005, section 3
  7. 7.0 7.1 The Analects 479 BCE - 221 BCE, VII.1
  8. Kang 1958
  9. The Analects 479 BCE - 221 BCE, II.2, 4
  10. Chien 1978
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Sima 109 BCE - 91 BCE, vol.47
  12. Chien 1978, p. 25
  13. Chen 2004
  14. Legge 1895, Book 5, V
  15. 15.0 15.1 Temple Of Confucious, 2001
  16. The Analects 479 BCE - 221 BCE, XVIII.4
  17. Chien 1978, pp. 37-46
  18. The Analects 479 BCE - 221 BCE, XV.1
  19. Watson 1996
  20. The Analects 479 BCE - 221 BCE, IX.14
  21. The Analects 479 BC - 221 BCE, XI.8, 9, 10 and 11
  22. Classic of Rites 300 BCE, Tangong Part 1
  23. Chien 1978, pp. 50-53
  24. Chien 1978, pp. 49-50
  25. Chien 1978, pp. 117-120
  26. The Analects 479 BCE - 221 BCE, I.1
  27. Gu 1658, vol. 51, sec. 9
  28. The Analects 479 BCE - 221 BCE, III.3; VI.13 and XVII.11
  29. The Analects 479 BCE - 221 BCE, XIII.5; XVII.9
  30. The Analects 479 BCE - 221 BCE, VI.25
  31. The Analects 479 BCE - 221 BCE, XVI.2
  32. The Analects 479 BCE - 221 BCE, XIV.9
  33. Zhang 2002, p. 208
  34. The Analects 479 BCE - 221 BCE, VI.24 and 30; XIV.16 and 17
  35. The Analects 479 BCE - 221 BCE, II.20; XII.19
  36. Derrida 1983, p. 63
  37. Du 2005
  38. Lee 1995, pp. 1-3
  39. Legge 1895
  40. Xun 325 BCE - 238 BCE
  41. Li 2005
  42. Zhang 1988, p. 76



See also


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