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Life of Confucius

by Sanderson Beck

This chapter has been published in the book CONFUCIUS AND SOCRATES Teaching Wisdom. For ordering information, please click here.

Kong Fu-zi (Kong the master, Latinized as Confucius) was born in the state of Lu in 551 BC and died in 479. Chinese culture already had a long history from the ancient sage emperors through the Xia Dynasty (2183-1752) to the Shang Dynasty (1751-1112) and into the Zhou Dynasty (1111-249).1 As the power of the feudal lords increased, they overthrew the king and established a new capital, marking the beginning of the Eastern Zhou period in 770 BC. During the nearly three centuries of the Spring and Autumn period until 481, the various states struggled against each other to expand their borders. The peripheral states faced and could civilize the exterior barbarians, while the smaller central states, which were more cultured, were liable to encroachment on all sides. Men of these cultured and vulnerable states began to develop philosophies of peace and happiness while the peripheral states often emphasized force and discipline.2 These conflicts continued after Confucius through the period of Warring States until China was unified and named by the forceful but short-lived Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). During these continual conflicts treaties were sworn to before the spirits and quickly broken. Religion and ethics suffered when compared to the efficacy of force and might.3

Lu was a small, cultured state, constantly threatened by wars from its northern neighbor Qi. Within the state there were also struggles and political intrigues between the "three families" with the hereditary right to rule and among ministers and officials seeking more power. Assassinations, bribery, adultery, and other crimes were commonplace even though punishments were severe. In this feudal society, the aristocrats began to multiply until there were too many to be supported by the state in governmental positions without bankrupting the country. Therefore the lower aristocrats (shi) who were cultured and educated began to suffer poverty like the ignorant peasants.4 What could they do about it? Confucius was born as a shi in these circumstances.

As a member of an aristocratic family Confucius must have had opportunities to study the classical writings and to take up music and sports such as fishing and archery. That he practiced these as befitting a better person of principles is indicated by the statement, "Confucius fished, but not with a net; he shot, but not at a bird at rest."5 Confucius loved music, as can be seen by an incident at age thirty-six when he fled the current political chaos in Lu to go to the northern state of Qi. There he heard the music of the Succession Dance commemorating the inauguration of the legendary Emperor Shun. He exclaimed, "I did not picture to myself that any music existed which could reach such perfection as this," and for three months he did not know the taste of meat.6

However, he did have the opportunity to learn practical accomplishments which eluded the well-to-do aristocrat. "When I was young, I was in humble circumstances, and therefore I acquired much ability to do the simple things of humble folk. Does a better person need to have so much ability? One does not."7 Confucius said this in response to an inquiry from a great official who apparently doubted whether a man of low accomplishments could be a sage. The disciple Zigong replied that Heaven endowed his master so liberally that he was to become a sage even though he had practical ability. After the conversation with Confucius, his pupil Lao returned this answer to the official: "The Master said, 'I have not been given official employment, and therefore I acquired the ability for the simple arts.'"8 These experiences may have helped Confucius to develop a more practical wisdom useful to more people. However, practical experience alone is not enough to become wise; one must handle it correctly. Mencius described two of Confucius' jobs and the goals he sought in each.

Confucius was once keeper of stores, and he then said,
"It is only necessary that my accounts be correct."
He was once in charge of pastures, and said,
"It is my duty only to see that the oxen and sheep
are well-grown and strong."9

Confucius' humility and industriousness set a good example and gave him a deeper understanding of the common people.

In spite of his practical abilities and his reputation for wisdom, Confucius had difficulty finding a suitable position in government his whole life long even though he was ambitious for such an opportunity. He was willing to do any type of work as long as it was ethical, but if honest work was not available he was happy continuing his studies.

If any means of escaping poverty presented itself,
that did not involve doing wrong, I would adopt it,
even though employment were that
of the better person who holds the whip.
But as long as it is a question of illegitimate means,
I shall continue to pursue the quests that I love.10

He seemed to have occupied his time with learning from a very early age. Reflecting on his life shortly before his death, he said that at age fifteen he set his heart (mind) on learning.11 No teacher was mentioned as having any particular influence on him. He seemed to have been most impressed by the ancients described in the classics. When one of his disciples was asked where Confucius derived his learning, he mentioned the Way of the first Zhou kings Wen and Wu (c. 1111 BC), whose principles were still all around. He concluded, "From whom indeed did our Master not learn? But at the same time, what need had he of any fixed and regular teacher."12 As we shall see, part of Confucius' genius was to take any situation and make it of educational value. He strove diligently to learn, and the ancients had a peculiar fascination for him: "I am not one who was born with knowledge. I love the ancient teachings and earnestly seek them."13 By not claiming to know already, he exemplified the pursuit of wisdom.

There were few books at the time made of bamboo strips tied by cords, but Confucius apparently made a thorough study of the classics of history, poetry, rituals, and the oracle of changes. As often as he quoted from them, it is likely that he memorized most or all of the three hundred or so poems from the ancient days. He must have continued to study throughout his life, for he wished he could have more time to learn from the Book of Changes (Yi Jing): "Give me a few more years so that I can devote fifty years to study Change, and I may be free from great mistakes."14

Confucius' own family was rarely mentioned. Tradition indicates he became an orphan at an early age and that his older brother was a cripple. He married, and had a son and a daughter. He selected a husband for his daughter and also one for his brother's daughter.15 Because to his brother's condition, his duties fell upon Confucius. One of the few claims that he made was that he had served the Duke and his officers at the Court, and his father and elder brother at home; he did not neglect proper mourning, nor was he overcome by wine.16

After he had served the government in some minor positions, and in between his rare opportunities to give political advice, what did Confucius do? Apparently as his learning and wisdom increased, he began to attract students and disciples. He was probably supported mostly by his students, though he may have at times received some salary from the government. He said that he never refused to instruct anyone who brought him something, no matter how poor.17 Confucius was the first professional teacher that we know of in ancient China. Little is known about Confucius' role as a political advisor or of any of his students' activities until he was at least fifty years old. About this time that Confucius recognized his divine mission. When he looked back over his life's progression, he measured it in terms of his inner development rather than his outer positions or accomplishments.

At fifteen my mind was set on learning.
At thirty my character had been formed.
At forty I had no more perplexities.
At fifty I knew the Will of Heaven.
At sixty I was at ease with whatever I heard.
At seventy I could follow my heart's desire
without transgressing moral principles.18

Fifty must have been a turning point in Confucius' life. Shortly after that he was given a position in the government in which he was to be consulted on important decisions. However, one incident indicates that his advice was not really sought.19 Ironically several of his disciples were given key positions and advanced in the government. Ji Kang-zi, who became the head of the three families who ruled in Lu, was advised personally by Confucius for several years to promote good government.

Ji Kang-zi asked whether there were
any form of encouragement by which he could induce
the common people to be respectful and loyal.
Confucius said, "Approach them with dignity,
and they will respect you.
Show piety towards your parents
and kindness toward your children,
and they will be loyal to you.
Promote those who are worthy,
train those who are incompetent;
that is the best form of encouragement."20

We see here that Confucius advised setting a good example so that the people would follow. Certainly this advice would have little strength if Confucius himself was not living up to it. In fact, his recommendation to select officials based on ability and education represented a key change of emphasis in Chinese culture away from hereditary privilege. Confucius was indeed busy not only preparing himself but also training and educating those who came to him so that they might serve in a more enlightened government. At another time Ji Kang-zi asked Confucius whether his disciples Zilu, Zigong, and Ran Qiu would be the right sort of persons to be put into office. Confucius recommended each of them for their efficiency, understanding, and versatility respectively.21 Later all three of them held important positions in the Ji family.22

In his late fifties Confucius left the state of Lu to travel to other states in order to see if he could advise other rulers to put his principles into practice. Mencius wrote that he departed because the duke was not following his counsel; so he used a ceremonial impropriety toward him as a pretext for going.23 While in the state of Wei, Confucius had an interview with the infamous Nan-zi, a woman who had been involved in incest, adultery, and political intrigue.24 When one of his disciples Zilu, a strict moralist, appeared displeased, Confucius swore an oath, "Whatsoever I have done amiss, may Heaven avert it; may Heaven avert it!"25 Like Jesus, he was not afraid to talk with a sinner. When the Duke of Wei asked his advice on military strategy, Confucius replied that he had some knowledge of sacrificial vessels, but he had not studied warfare. The next day he left Wei to go to Chen.26

While he was traveling through Song, Huan Tui, the Song Minister of War, attempted to intercept and assassinate him.27 Confucius responded calmly, "Heaven produced the virtue that is in me. What do I have to fear from such a one as Huan Tui?"28 In spite of this incident Confucius still accepted Huan Tui's brother Sima Niu as one of his regular students, though Sima Niu did renounce his dastardly brother.29 Another student told him that the better person considers all people as brothers, demonstrating again the Confucian ideal of virtue rather than blood.30 Confucius was also trapped at Kuang, and for a time he thought that his favorite disciple Yen Hui was dead.31 By the time they got to Chen they were weak and short of supplies.32

In Chen he apparently did not get a chance to talk with the duke because they were embroiled in wars at the time but Confucius did have a brief interview with the Minister of Crime concerning propriety.33 Mencius wrote that the reason Confucius had a difficult time here was because neither the rulers nor the minister communicated with him.34 While in Chen, Confucius wanted to go back to Lu because he said the disciples there were becoming "headstrong and careless."35 Why did he travel from place to place? One disrespectful man asked him if it was not to show off that he was a clever talker; but Confucius denied it, saying he did not like obstinacy.36 In other words, instead of stubbornly trying to improve a ruler against his will, he preferred to move on. The only ruler who seemed to consider virtue as important was the Duke of She in the small state of Cai.37 Apparently Confucius did go to see him because they did converse briefly.38

During a civil war in Jin, Confucius was invited there by an officer, but Zilu was quick to point out that technically they were in rebellion and what people would say. Confucius decided not to go, but he lamented that he was "like the bitter gourd that is only fit to hang up, but not to eat."39 A similar offer came from the Bi castle when they were in revolt against the Ji family. Again Zilu registered his objection. Confucius must have rejected it even though he felt he "could make a 'Zhou in the east.'"40

Confucius went back to Wei, where he got the opportunity to advise the Minister Kong Yu, who was ruling for the young Duke at the time. This man listened to Confucius; for when asked why he was called "The Cultured," Confucius said, "Because he was diligent and so fond of learning that he was not ashamed to pick up knowledge even from his inferiors."41 However, Kong forced one of his nobles to divorce his wives and marry one of his daughters; when he kept on seeing a concubine, Kong was going to attack him. So he asked Confucius how to do it. Confucius told him not to; but when he went ahead with it, Confucius prepared his chariot to leave. When he apologized, Confucius was ready to change his mind; but then messengers from Lu arrived, inviting him to return to his own state.42 Finally at the age of sixty-seven he returned to Lu. However, even in his native state his advice was not regarded. Ji Kang-zi sent Ran Qiu, whom Confucius had taught, to inquire from the master his opinion about raising taxes. Confucius' position in favor of the people was obvious, and when Ran Qiu collected the increased taxes, Confucius declared that he was no disciple of his.43

On at least two occasions Confucius gave advice to Duke Ai during his last years at Lu. When asked how to gain the support of the common people, he recommended advancing the upright over the crooked.44 When the Duke of Qi was assassinated in 481 BC, Confucius fasted and bathed before going to court to advise Duke Ai to punish the usurper.45 However, the chiefs of the three families were unwilling to take action. The master must have been deeply disappointed in his old age that he never really had the opportunity to participate fully in government.

As far as taking trouble goes,
I do not think I compare badly with other people.
But as regards carrying out
the duties of a better person in actual life,
I have never yet had a chance to show what I could do.46

In addition to teaching, Confucius probably spent much of his last years working on some of the classics. One of them was the Book of Poetry: "It was only after my return from Wei to Lu that music was revised, Court songs and Ancestral Recitations being at last properly discriminated."47 Mencius gave him credit for completing the Spring and Autumn Annals which struck terror into "rebellious ministers and villainous sons,"48 presumably because of the subtle ethical interpretations. According to Mencius this was the work by which Confucius believed people would know him and condemn him.49 However, the book by this name which we have today is a rather dry year-by-year chronicle of events. The Yi Jing or Book of Changes also claims Confucius as having written one of the first commentaries to this ancient classic.50 There is much wisdom in this book comparable to the sayings of Confucius passed down by his disciples, but their authenticity as being directly from Confucius is a matter of speculation.

The last couple of years of the master's life must have been bitter ones considering the number of deaths among his close associates. First his son died, then his favorite disciple Yen Hui;51 the highest aristocrat among the disciples, Sima Niu, had a tragic death in 481, and in 480 Zilu was killed as he heroically tried to rescue his chief in Wei.52 Confucius seemed to face his own death calmly. Once when he was very ill, Zilu asked if he could pray for him, according to the Eulogies, to the spirits of the upper and lower worlds. The master responded, "My praying has been for a long time."53 Confucius outlived Zilu by about a year, and died at the age of seventy-two. The deeds of his life had been his prayer to Heaven.


1. Chan, Wing-tsit, Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, p. xv.
2. Creel, H. G. Confucius: The Man and the Myth, p. 17.
3. Ibid. p. 19.
4. Ibid. p. 25.
5. Analects 7:26.
6. An. 7:13.
7. An. 9:6.
8. An. 9:6.
9. Mencius 5B, 5:4.
10. An. 7:11.
11. An. 2:4.
12. An. 9:22.
13. An. 7:19.
14. An. 7:16.
15. An. 5:1.
16. An. 9:15.
17. An. 7:7.
18. An. 2:4.
19. An. 13:14.
20. An. 2:20.
21. An. 6:6.
22. Creel, Confucius, p. 45.
23. Mencius 6B, 6:6.
24. Creel, Confucius, p. 52.
25. An. 6:26.
26. An. 15:1.
27. Mencius 5A, 8:3.
28. An. 7:22.
29. An. 12:5.
30. An. 12:5.
31. An. 11:22.
32. An. 15:1.
33. An. 7:30.
34. Mencius 7B, 18.
35. An. 5:21.
36. An. 14:34.
37. Creel, Confucius, p. 55-56.
38. An. 13:16, 13:18.
39. An. 17:7.
40. An. 17:5.
41. An. 5:14.
42. Creel, Confucius, p. 59.
43. An. 11:16.
44. An. 2:19.
45. An. 14:22.
46. An. 7:32.
47. An. 9:14.
48. Mencius 3B, 9:11.
49. Mencius 3B, 9:8.
50. I Ching, tr. Wilhelm/Baynes, p. 370.
51. An. 11:7, 11:8.
52. Creel, Confucius, p. 63.
53. An. 7:34.

Copyright © 1996, 2006 by Sanderson Beck

This chapter has been published in the book CONFUCIUS AND SOCRATES Teaching Wisdom. For ordering information, please click here.


Life of Confucius
Attitudes of Confucius
How Confucius Taught
What Confucius Taught
Example of Confucius
Influence of Confucius


The Socratic Problem
Life of Socrates
Attitudes of Socrates
How Socrates Taught
What Socrates Taught
Example of Socrates
Influence of Socrates
Confucius and Socrates Compared

Confucius, Mencius and Xun-zi

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