Thursday, February 3, 2011

Month 4, Day 3: Confucius


I’ve got to say, for starters, that it wasn’t nearly as much fun writing “Confucius” as it was writing “Jesus Christ” as a post title back in December, which makes me wonder if any Chinese people have ever used Confucius’s name as a swear word the way some Christians use Jesus’s name. But anyway . . .

Confucius, the founder of Confucianism (obviously), was born around 551 b.c.e. in Lu, China (which is now Shantung).

There’s not a whole lot of information available about Confucius’s early life, which kind of reminds me of the lack of detail in the Bible about Jesus and his youth. That, too, makes me wonder something: Are the founders of major world religions really horrible children who suddenly become amazingly righteous adults? It seems odd. You’d think their disciples would ask them a question or two about their childhoods, to record for posterity. But nope.



The name Confucius is just a Westernized translation (yeah, we do that to everybody, don’t we?). His real name would have been K’ung Tzu or K’ung Fu-Tzu, meaning “Master K’ung” or “Great Master K’ung.”

Of course, he only would have been called “Great Master” later in life, after establishing himself as a respected teacher. I doubt he was going around as a 9-year-old kid making people call him “Great Master K’ung.” Then again, there’s very little information about his youth, so maybe he did. Who knows?

Before he took on the name K’ung Fu-Tzu, Confucius’s first name was Ch’iu, his last name was K’ung, and he would have had a polite, or courtesy, name: Chung-ni.

Wow. And I thought my name gave people trouble.

Confucius came from a family that was once part of the lower-level nobility but had fallen on hard times by the time he was born. His father died while he was very young—either while he was still a baby or by the time he was 3 years old, according to different sources. He lost his mother when he was in his teens. It sounds like a pretty sucky life to me, but Confucius seems to have made the best of it.

At some point in his late teens or early twenties, Confucius got married, but we don’t know much about his wife—we only know that it wasn’t a very happy marriage. But then, not much about Confucius’s life seems to have been a great success, at least during his lifetime.

Although Confucius dreamed of getting a position as a leading government official so he could put into effect his ideas about self-cultivation and the right way to run public affairs, his career proved to be a bit of a disappointment. (Man, can I relate to that!) He did manage to secure a few semi-important posts—as minister of justice and even as prime minister in the state of Lu—but then he resigned suddenly in 497 b.c.e.

Legend has it that he resigned as prime minister over a very specific incident. When the ruler of neighboring Ch’i heard that Confucius had been hired as prime minister, he wasn’t pleased (Confucius seems to have made a lot of enemies in his day). To distract the leader of Lu from the business of good government, the ruler of Ch’i sent him 80 lovely women. (Yup—I think 80 women would definitely be a good way to distract a man.) Confucius was angry that his boss accepted the gift and decided to quit.

After leaving his post, Confucius never held a formal government position again. But that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, at least from the perspective of history. It was only after leaving government work that Confucius managed to refine and spread his teachings. I guess it can be hard to be productive when you’re a full-time bureaucrat, huh?

For around 14 years, Confucius traveled around China, meeting with government leaders and trying hard to persuade them to adopt his ideas about how states should be run.

Although he won over many disciples, nobody in government—the people he really wanted to reach—bothered to listen to him. They were too busy dealing with war and other problems to care much about the lofty goal of perfection in government. They were just trying to survive. To these people, Confucius’s ideas might have seemed noble, but they certainly weren’t practical.

Confucius may have felt like a failure, but he kept on trying. Besides meeting with government officials, he spent lots of time editing and compiling a series of texts that would eventually form the basis of Confucian scripture: the Five Classics (which we’ll look at in detail another day).

Now, if you’ll recall, back in December, I tried to figure out what Jesus Christ was like as a person—not just as God—and I didn’t have a lot of luck. So, what about Confucius? What was he like?

Scholars say that Confucius was a humble man who put forth the idea of the perfect wise person, or sage, but denied that he himself qualified to be one. As Huston Smith explains, “Not for a moment assuming that he was a sage himself, sagehood being for him not a stock of knowledge but quality in comportment, he presented himself to his students as their fellow traveler, committed to the task of becoming fully human but modest in how far he had gotten with that task.”

Huston Smith makes Confucius sound like a great guy. The Analects of Confucius, one of the Five Classics, however, presents a slightly different picture, at least to me (but then, I tend to see the negative in everything, so maybe you’ll have a different interpretation).

In one section of the Analects, Confucius says, “If there were any of the princes who would employ me, in the course of twelve months, I should have done something considerable. In three years, the government would be perfected.”

Um . . . arrogant much? Is Confucius really saying that he could create a perfect government in three years, single-handedly? Yup. That’s my idea of a modest man.

In a later section of the Analects, Confucius complains when one of his disciples shows up late. The disciple says he was late because he had to deal with government business. Confucius then flips out, saying, “It must have been family affairs. If there had been government business, though I am not now in office, I should have been consulted about it.”

Okay, so even though he’s not a government official, even though he chose to quit his job, Confucius is still demanding to have a say in everything that goes on. Is it me, or does that make him sound kind of like a whiny little brat?

The thing is, I like the fact that Confucius has both strengths and some pretty obvious weaknesses. I like that he’s a real person who doesn’t claim to be perfect. He actually seems to have personality.


Huston Smith tells us that Confucius loved to go out to eat, hang around with friends, and drink (but not too much). He sounds like a cool guy, even if he is kind of bitter over the government business stuff.

Actually, he sounds a little bit like me—except for the whole wisdom and “perfection of self” part. Just like Confucius, I’ve had the bad marriage, the failed career, and the tendency to resort to whiny, petulant resentment over perceived slights. But I also keep on trying, even when I keep screwing up, just like Confucius did. Maybe that’s why I like him so much.

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