Born in 551 BC in the district of Zou, in the tributary state of Lu near present day Qufu, China; Confucius is considered as a towering personality in ancient Chinese history. After working in a number of small jobs in his early life, Confucius became a renowned philosopher who had thousands of disciples and numerous followers. He also served as Minister of Crime in his political career. In his role as a political thinker, philosopher, teacher and great master, Confucius left a deep influence in the essence of Chinese society. The impact of his philosophy Confucianism on East Asia and, through it, in other parts of the world can be perceived even today; many centuries after his death. Know about the family, life, career, death, teachings, philosophy and disciples of this great Chinese sage through these 10 interesting facts.
#1 Confucius is not his real name
Confucius’s personal name is understood to be Kǒng Qiū (Zi). Zi representing the family lineage and Kong, a certain branch of the family. As per prevalent customs his personal name was only used by the family elders and his courtesy name Zhòngní was commonly used by his contemporaries. His students address him as Zi in their compilations of his teachings; a title which is mostly translated as “Master” and does not imply his surname. Besides this Confucius was decorated with many titles over the years. Some of them being
a. “Laudably Declarable Lord Ni” (褒成宣尼公)
b. “Extremely Sage Departed Teacher” (至聖先師)
c. “The Model Teacher for the Myriad Ages” (萬世師表)
d. “The Great Sage” (至聖)
e. “Grand Master Kong” (孔夫子)
f. “The First Teacher” (先師)
Confucius is the Latinization of his title Kǒng Fūzǐ (Grand Master Kong) made popular in the west through the writings of Jesuit missionaries in China.
#2 The Lunyu and Shiji are widely sourced for his biography
The Lunyu or “Analects of Confucius”, compiled by Confucius’s disciples and later followers, is considered as one of the most reliable biographical material on Confucius. Shiji or “Records of the Grand Historian”, a masterpiece by Sima Qian, is a monumental account of ancient Chinese history covering over 2500 years. It was completed around 94 BC during the rule of the Han dynasty and consists of a biography of Confucius. Besides these, other important texts from which one can know about Confucius include Zuo zhuan or “Commentary of Zuo“, composed in the 4th century; and the Mencius, compilations of teachings and philosophies of Confucius by his well-known 4th century follower Mencius, known as the “second Sage” after Confucius himself.
#3 Confucius had to take up many small time jobs in his youth
Confucius was born in the class of shi, between the ruling elite and the commoners; most shih served as court officials, scholars and teachers. His father Kong He, a soldier and commander in the Lu garrison died when Confucius was three years of age. The little boy was thus cared for by his mother Yan Zhengzai within her meager means. Confucius married Qiguan when he was 19. The couple had a son and two daughters. He took up many minor jobs to support his family. His first occupation appears to have been as a book keeper of the Lu granary. It is noted that he also worked as a laborer, supervisor of the fields, shepherd, cowherd and a clerk.
#4 Confucianism emerged as a major philosophy in the 100 schools of thought
The era of the “100 schools of thought” is considered one of great ages of cultural, philosophical and intellectual expansion in China. It took place during the Spring and Autumn period (771 to 476 BC) and the Warring States period (475 to 221 BC) of ancient China. Born towards the end of the spring and autumn period, Confucius grew up in a time when China was getting more and more divided. The rise of disunity and civil strife gave rise to various philosophies. Confucius and his followers competed successfully with many other schools during the era. Other major philosophies, underlined by historian Sima Qian, during this period are Taoism, School of Yin-yang, Mohism, Legalism and Logicians.
#5 He included the concept of Six Arts in his philosophy
In ancient China, during the reign of the Zhou Dynasty (1122 to 256 BC), a perfect gentlemen was supposed to be the master of “liù yì” or the Six Arts. Confucius was himself educated in the six arts namely archery, mathematics, music, calligraphy, charioting and ritual. These six arts became a part of Confucian philosophy. They were emphasized besides the established scholarship and were practiced by the disciples of Confucius. To Confucius, the main objective of being an educator was to teach people to live with integrity. Through his teachings, he worked to resurrect and bolster the traditional values of benevolence, propriety and ritual in Chinese society.
#6 Only 70 odd disciples mastered what he taught
According to Sima Qian, Confucius once said “The disciples who received my instructions, and could themselves comprehend them, were seventy-seven individuals. They were all scholars of extraordinary ability.” Menicus puts the number at 70. Traditionally it is said and widely believed that Confucius had 3000 disciples, but only 72 mastered what he had to teach. Yan Hui was the favorite disciple of Confucius. He is considered the first among the Four Assessors or the four prominent Chinese philosophers in the Confucian tradition. Others being Zengzi (disciple of Confucius); Zisi (Confucius’s grandson, student of Zengzi); and Mencius (student of Zisi), who is the most notable among the four. Within a traditional Confucian temple, his favorite disciple Yan Hui’s tablet is placed first to the east of Confucius.
#7 He rose to the position of Minister of Crime in his political career
During the times of political turmoil in which Confucius lived, the state of Lu was governed by what may be termed as a duke of Lu, Lord Ding. Under him three aristocratic families of Ji, Shu and Meng held important bureaucratic and political positions. The fiercely competitive politics, and lack of morality in the state and the empire as a whole, had led to a vast array of problems. This led to the rise of various philosophies which were looked at as guiding lights by certain people in power. Around 500 BC, Confucius had gained in esteem through his teachings and was appointed to serve first as a magistrate, then as an assistant minister of public works, and eventually as minister of crime in the state of Lu.
#8 Confucius went in a self-imposed exile for 13-14 long years
Being among the annals of power in Lu, Confucius must have been glad with the opportunity to propagate his ideas. There are varied accounts on why he abrogated his position and went into exile most pointing to the internal politics within the state, the moral denigration of the ruling elite, jealously of other states and that his ideas did not sit well with the aristocracy. So around 496 BC, Confucius went into a long self-imposed exile of 13 to 14 years looking for a feudal state that would utilize his services. His journey was primarily in the north-east and central China including Wey, Song, Zheng, Cao, Chu, Qi, Chen, and Cai. Confucius was mostly received with much respect and admiration during his journey. He expounded his philosophy but was disappointed that much of his teachings were never implemented.
#9 His forsaken disciple facilitated his return to Lu
Ran Qiu (Ziyou/Ran You) was a leading disciple of Confucius. He is noted in the Analects for his achievements in government and political affairs. He worked in prominent positions for the aristocratic Ji family in the state of Lu. He most notably served under Ji Kangzi, who was the chief minister of Lu from 492 to 468 BC. Ran was interested in the administration and ignored many Confucian dictates. Confucius thought that Ran lacked ren or humaneness and criticized his disciple many times, once suggesting he no longer considered Ran as his disciple. In 484 BC, Ran Qiu, as commander of the Lu forces, defeated the invading Qi army. As a result his influence rose in the state of Lu. It is believed that the rise of Ran Qiu led to Ji Kangzi inviting Confucius back to his native state of Lu, after his years in exile.
#10 Confucius died in 479 BC leaving a lasting impression on the life in East Asia and beyond
Confucius returned to his native state of Lu as an old man of 68 years. He finally breathed his last in 479 BC. During his last years he acted as an adviser to the government officials, transmitting his wisdom to his disciples and working on various texts including the 5 classics. His teachings would later be compiled and elaborated by his disciples and his philosophical school continued and prospered for ages. The succeeding Han and Tang Dynasties encouraged Confucian thought with Emperor Wu of Han making it the imperial philosophy. During the Song Dynasty, famous Confucian scholar Zhu Xi (12 century AD) built upon Neo Confucianism, a more rationalist and secular form of Confucianism. The ideas of Confucius had great influence in not only China but also Japan, Vietnam, Korea and others, up until the 19th century.
The Lasting Impact of Confucius
There may be arguments and counter arguments but the impact of Confucianism on the life, culture and thought in East Asia and through it in other parts of the world can be perceived even today; many centuries after his death. He is widely considered as one of the most important and influential individuals in history who had a deep and profound affect on humanity.