Confucius (551 BC – 479 BC) was a Chinese philosopher who is considered one of the most important and influential individuals in history. His teachings have had a great impact on affecting the lives of humans not only in China but around the world. Born during a time of political and social turmoil, Confucius developed a philosophy that came to be known as Confucianism and later gave rise to another influential philosophy called Neo-Confucianism. His teachings dominated Chinese thought and culture for many centuries; and still linger in today’s society. Among other things, Confucius laid emphasis on family, kinship, loyalty, righteousness, encouragement of humanity and strengthening social bonds. He was the first in China to set up private academies for the rich and the poor alike. He is thus credited for positively impacting the education system in China by making it focus on meritocracy rather than inherited status. Confucian philosophy is fundamental to the hugely influential Four Books and Five Classics. Know more about the teachings of Confucius and their impact through his 10 major contributions.

 

#1 He revived the great moral teachings of the sages of the past

The cusp of Spring and Autumn period (770 – 476 BC) of Chinese history during the reign of Zhou Dynasty (1046 – 256 BC) was a time of political and social turmoil. Born in 551 BC and dejected with the degeneration and violence in society, Confucius took inspiration from the sages of the past and expounded teachings that would inspire generations to come. He considered himself to have re-transmitted the values of the great sages of the golden age of Zhou Dynasty centuries ago. Confucian teachings emerged among the leading philosophies of what is referred to as the 100 schools of thought“, a term used for philosophies and schools that flourished from the 6th century to 221 BC. Building upon the wisdom of ancient Chinese sages, Confucius expounded a set of political and moral doctrines; and social and political ethics based on family, kinship, loyalty, righteousness and what may be termed as the fundamental ideas of humanity.

Portrait of Confucius
An 18th century portrait of Confucius

 

#2 He laid the foundation and developed the influential philosophy Confucianism

The philosophy that developed from the teachings of Confucius came to be known as Confucianism. It became hugely influential and had a great impact on Chinese history. Some key points regarding Confucianism are stated below:-

i. Zi Gong (a disciple of Confucius) asked: “Is there any one word that could guide a person throughout life?” The Master replied: “How about ‘shu’ [reciprocity]: never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself?”. This is often referred as the silver or golden rule of Confucianism.

ii. Confucianism is mostly indifferent to big metaphysical and physical mysteries but has a more practical approach. As Confucius says, We do not yet know how to serve man, how can we know about serving the spirits? We don’t know yet about life, how can we know about death?

iii. It lays emphasis on belief in and encouragement of humanity.

iv. It is more like a moral guide for different strata of society, government and its organizations.

v. It is comfortable with hierarchy but values and respects each building block of society.

vi. It encourages collectivism and strengthening social bonds.

vii. It stresses on respect for family, age and tradition.

viii. It focuses on education and meritocracy.

ix. It believes on superiority of personal exemplification over explicit rules of behavior.

Confucius and his students
An ancient painting depicting Confucius and his students

 

#3 He is traditionally credited with having authored or edited the “Five Classics”

Although many modern scholars contest it, Confucius was traditionally credited with either authoring or editing many ancient Chinese texts including the “Five Classics”. The five classics gained popularity during the Warring States era (c. 475 – 221BC) but it was during the age of the Han Dynasty (206 BC 220 AD) that they started to be considered as a set. Considered as the golden age of ancient China, Han Dynasty adopted Confucianism as its official ideology and the Five Classics were part of the state sponsored curriculum. The Five Classics, that in many ways form the essence of Confucianism, are:-

1. Classic of History (書經) – Also known as the “Book of Documents”, this text is considered as the first narrative history of ancient China. A compilation of 58 chapters, it details the events of ancient China. These documents and speeches are alleged to have been written by rulers and officials of the early Zhou period and before. The book mentions the deeds of ancient sage kings Yao and Shun and also includes histories of Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties. It is possibly the oldest Chinese narrative and may date from the 6th century B.C.

2. Classic of Poetry (詩經) – A collection of 305 poems divided into 160 folk songs; 105 festal songs, sung at court ceremonies; and 40 hymns and eulogies, sung at sacrifices to gods and ancestral spirits of the royal house.

3. Classic of Rites (禮記) – Describes ancient rites, social forms and court ceremonies. Book of Rites is the foundation of many ritual principles that arise in later imperial China. According to it, proper ritual conduct would maintain harmony in the empire.

4. Classic of Changes (易經) – Also known as the I Ching or the Book of Changes; it contains a system of divination, which is centered largely on the principle of yin and yang. Divination is the attempt to gain insight into a question or situation by way of an occultist and standardized process, or ritual.

5. Spring and Autumn Annals (春秋) – These are historical chronicles of the State of Lu, Confucius’s native state. They imply condemnation of usurpation, murder, incest, etc.

The Five Classics
Illustration of the Five Classics

 

#4 His five virtues are among China’s most valued traditional virtues

Though Confucianism is practiced as a religion by many, scholars point out many dissimilarities vis-a-vie patterns observed among other faiths. Confucian propagation and belief in humanistic ethics in times of social and political upheaval must be appreciated. Confucius taught five virtues a gentleman should practice every day to live a healthy, harmonious life. They are among the most valued traditional virtues of China. They are:-

1. Ren, which means humaneness or benevolence.

2. Yi, which means righteousness and honesty.

3. Li, which means proper behavior and propriety.

4. Zhi, which means knowledge or wisdom.

5. Xin, which means sincerity and fidelity.

The Five Virtues
The Five Virtues of Confucius

 

#5 His teachings inspired Neo-Confucianism which impacted China for almost 6 centuries

Statue of Zhu Xi
Statue of Zhu Xi, the most influential Neo-Confucian

Neo-Confucianism attempted to create a more rationalist form of Confucianism. The Song Dynasty (960–1279) scholar Zhu Xi was the most influential figure of this philosophy. He streamlined Confucian education by compiling the Shisu (Four Books):-

1. Lunyu or Analects – Believed to have been written by the followers of Confucius, it is primarily a collection of his sayings and discourses.

2. Mengzi or Mencius – This basically is a collection of the conversations and anecdotes that Confucius had with fellow philosopher Mencius.

3. Da Xue or Great Learning – It primarily has chapters on achieving a state of balance. It emphasizes on the values of harmony, relationship and moral cultivation; importance of hard work and collaboration; and the value of teachers and elders in Chinese society.

4. Zhong Yong or Centrality and Commonality – This 33 chapter book, focuses on the golden mean to gain perfect virtue.

Zhu Xi wrote commentaries on these four books, reinterpreting them and using them as the foundation of his social, moral and political philosophy Neo-Confucianism. The Four Books were the basis of China’s civil service examinations from 1313 till 1905, when the examinations were abolished. The ideas of Neo-Confucianism were thus a towering influence on China for almost 600 years.

 

#6 Confucius positively influenced the education system of his country

Confucius was an eminent scholar and a teacher throughout his life. Under the Zhou Dynasty, in those times, education was a prerogative of the nobility. Schooling took place within government offices and was dispensed by public officials. The aristocrats were trained in civil and military education based on the six arts: archery, rites, music, arithmetic, charioting and calligraphy. Confucius was not in favor of this biased system and was among the few who set up private academies for the rich and the poor alike. He famously said My teachings are for everyone, without distinction“.

 

#7 His political philosophy was a guiding light to many future rulers

Confucius also had a great impact on Chinese political history. In Confucian thought the state is seen more as a tool to bring out the best in people. Great emphasis is given to people’s faith in their rulers and the rulers must keep working to maintain the faith people have in them. The three requisites for the government are stated as thus in decreasing order of priority:-

1. Confidence of the people in their ruler

2. Sufficiency of Food

3. Sufficiency of Military Power

Confucius also stresses on how people should govern themselves and how the society should work towards being harmonious and virtuous.

Statue of Confucius in Japan
World’s largest statue of Confucius at Yushima Seido, Tokyo, Japan

 

#8 Confucius successfully propagated the concept of meritocracy

One major influence of Confucian teachings was the concept of meritocracy, where a person’s qualities determine his position in society rather than his inherited status. These ideas led to the introduction of the Imperial Examination System in China, which allowed anyone who had passed it to become a Government Officer. Most scholars consider this as the first known example of administrative meritocracy, based on a civil service examination irrespective of people’s birth or background. The ideas would be implemented almost two millennia later in colonial British India and later in other parts of the world.

Confucius Temple of Kaohsiung
Confucius Temple of Kaohsiung in Taiwan

 

#9 His emphasis on social harmony forms the base of Chinese society

Confucius, Gautama Buddha & Laozi
Depiction of Confucius, Gautama Buddha & Laozi – The three founders of the Three Teachings

Confucius laid a lot of emphasis on social harmony, which to date forms the basis for Chinese society. Confucian thought says that every individual has a place in the social order and they need to be respected for it. This respect has to be mutual, so while the wife has to respect her husband, the husband needs to be benevolent towards her. The young must show respect for their elders; and they in turn must be kind to them and guide them. The ruler must be responsible and humane towards his subjects; and this must be reciprocated with obedience towards the ruler.

#10 His philosophy is among the three great Chinese teachings

In China the term San Jiao (three teachings) can be traced back to the prominent scholars of sixth Century AD. It is a common term referring to philosophies of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism; which have had the greatest impact on the Chinese Civilization. Here are a few examples of how the teachings of Confucius still have a major influence in China. Confucius advocated respect for elders, ancestors, family and the state; something that may be observed even today in the amount of reverence for authority and age in China. Confucian thought advocates “filial piety” or devotion towards parents. The family is still the primary unit of social organization in China and is valued and nurtured. Collectivism is inherent in Confucian thought. The Chinese are thus culturally adept to think in terms of collective responsibility to their family, community and nation at large. Influenced by Confucianism, in Chinese culture, being an intellectual is not limited to study alone. He/She should be successful in being a human and make use of his/her ability to do well for the state, society and the world at large.

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