Saturday, September 24, 2011



Confucius (551 – 479 BCE) is the preeminent social philosopher, thinker, and teacher of 5th Century BCE China. His birthday is celebrated on the 27th day of the 8th Chinese lunar month.

The name Confucius is the Latinized form of his Chinese title which is Kong Fuzi (孔夫子), and often abbreviated as Kongzi (孔子). His common name Kong Qiu (孔丘) is comprised of his surname Kong () and given name Qiu (). Fuzi means Master and was the ancient form of address for teachers and scholars, so Kong Fuzi means Master (or Teacher) Kong. His style name, also known as a courtesy name (in ancient China, a name used in adulthood), was Zhong Ni (仲尼). Confucius also has several posthumous honorific titles such as Lord Ni Who Is Praiseworthy and Acknowledged (褒成宣尼公 Baochengxuan Nigong); The Greatest Sage and Primary Teacher (至聖先師 Zhisheng Xianshi); and Exemplar of Teachers for Myriad Ages (萬世師表 Wanshi Shibiao).

Confucius taught a system of social morality and ethics involving virtuous motivation and self-cultivation as a basis for upholding proper social, familial, and political relationships. His teachings are called Confucianism (儒教 Rujiao, literally, Teachings of the Scholars; or 儒家 Rujia, literally, School of the Scholars), and although Confucianism is sometimes called one of the three religions of ancient China (the other two being Buddhism and Taoism), it is actually a humanist and ethical ideology rather than a religion (however, Confucius did not fail to neglect spiritual matters and religious rites either, because he was careful to teach his disciples that offerings to heaven must be observed with sincerity and that deities and spirits should be respected). Confucius also made no claims to have originated any of the ideas in his teachings, instead, he said he merely transmitted the ideas of the ancients from an even earlier era of China’s history.

An image of Confucius in a temple shrine in Changhua, Taiwan
(Image: Photo by Harry Leong)

The three basic principles of Confucian ethics are Propriety ( Li), Righteousness ( Yi), and Benevolence ( Ren). They are explained in summary as follows:

Propriety refers to understanding and observing one’s own proper role and abiding with the norms and etiquette of daily life. Particular duties exist for each individual in his or her own particular situation in relation to others. In society: One should respect one’s superiors (this does not mean mindless subservience, but rather, it refers to the sincere performance of one’s present responsibilities under another’s authority), look after the welfare of one’s inferiors, and fulfill one’s duties so as to achieve admiration and respect. In government: A ruler must lead by example by being a role model for his people. He must possess honesty and self discipline and show genuine concern for his people instead of just governing through enacting laws and enforcing punishments. In return, subjects should have respect and loyalty for their ruler because he has moral rectitude. In the family: One should fulfill one’s duty as a spouse, parent, sibling, or child. One must respect one’s parents and elders, and serve as a role model for younger family members. In spiritual matters: One should not fail to show reverence to heaven and the gods. In short: One must carry out what is proper for one’s position in the social, political, family, and spiritual spheres in order to maintain reciprocal harmony.

Righteousness refers to doing what is right and proper because it is morally correct. Righteousness is the origin and motivation for propriety.

Benevolence refers to compassion and concern for the welfare of others. This is reflected in a well known saying by Confucius: “Do not do to others what you do not wish for yourself.” In other words, one should put oneself in another person’s shoes. Confucius believed that benevolence is an innate quality present in all people. Only by practicing benevolence can a person consummate what it means to be human. Benevolence is closely tied to the previous two concepts of propriety and righteousness.

According to Confucius, if a person cultivates his character and lives his life by adhering perfectly to these principles, that person is a Junzi (君子 Gentleman, or superior man).

The authoritative texts of Confucianism are the Four Books and Five Classics (四書五經 Sishu Wujing). And while Confucius is traditionally regarded as the author of some of these texts, it is probable that disciples of later generations are responsible for the completed works that we have today.

The Four Books (四書 Sishu) are:
1. Great Learning (大學 Daxue): A text that teaches self-cultivation is the basis for correct political governance and a harmonious social order
2. Doctrine of the Mean (中庸 Zhongyong): A metaphysical text that teaches the path of equilibrium leading to moral perfection and social harmony
3. The Analects (論語 Lunyu): A collection of conversations between Confucius and his disciples
4. Mencius (孟子 Mengzi): A collection of anecdotes and conversations of the Confucian philosopher Mencius

The Five Classics (五經 Wujing) are:
1. Classic of Odes (詩經 Shijing): A collection of over 300 different poems and songs used in popular folk singing, court ceremonies, and veneration rites for gods and royal ancestors
2. Classic of History (書經 Shujing): A collection of documents and speeches from the early Xia, Shang, and Western Zhou dynasties (i.e. 21st − 8th Century BCE)
3. Book of Rites (禮記 Liji): Describes ancient rites, social forms, and court ceremonies
4. Classic of Transformations (易經 Yijing): A system of divination based on the permutations of the 64 hexagrams that is deeply rooted in the metaphysical concepts of the Taoist tradition
5. Spring and Autumn Annals (春秋 Chunqiu), also known as Lin Jing (麟經): A historical record of the State of Lu (Confucius’ native state) covering the period from 722 to 481 BCE that records events including births and deaths of ruling family members, political and military actions and alliances, murder, affairs and relationships, and natural disasters and meteorological phenomena.

A page from The Analects, a collection of conversations of Confucius with his disciples
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Today, followers still reenact ancient rites in honor of Confucius who was an exemplar of human excellence and whose teachings became the basic social and cultural value system of China and neighboring countries like Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

A performance of ancient commemorative rites in honor of Confucius

Happy birthday to Confucius!

Text © 2011 Harry Leong

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