Born into an age of violence and war, Confucius (551-479 BC) was the creator of a moral and political philosophy that was to bring harmony to the chaos of his times. Confucius’ teachings have been the foundation of Chinese education for 2,000 years, and his ideas of meritocracy, obedience and moral leadership have shaped China’s political and economic landscape.
Perhaps most significantly, Confucius emphasised the power of ritual and etiquette, family loyalty, the celebration of deified ancestors and the importance of social and personal morality. These codes and morals still influence Chinese and East Asian governance and family relations to this day, some 2,000 years after Confucius’ death.
Here are 10 facts about Confucius.
1. He was a longed-for son
Confucius’ father, Kong He, was 60 when he married a 17-year-old girl from the local Yan family, in the hope of fathering a healthy male heir after his first wife had produced 9 daughters. Kong looked to the teenage daughters of one of his neighbours for his new bride. None of the daughters were happy about marrying an ‘old man’ and left it to their father to choose who was to marry. The girl chosen was Yan Zhengzai.
After the wedding, the couple retreated to a local sacred mountain in the hope such a revered and spiritual place would help them conceive. Confucius was born in 551 BC.
2. His birth is the subject of an origin story
A popular legend states that Confucius’ mother, while pregnant, was visited by a qilin, a strange mythical creature with the head of a dragon, the scales of a snake and the body of a deer. The qilin revealed a tablet made of jade, the story goes, which foretold the unborn child’s future greatness as a sage.
3. His teachings form a sacred text known as the Analects
As a young man, Confucius opened a school where his reputation as a philosopher was ultimately born. The school attracted some 3,000 students but did not teach academic training, but rather schooling as a way of life. Over time, his teachings formed the basis of one of China’s most sacred texts, the Analects.
Seen by some as a sort of ‘Chinese Bible’, the Analects has been one of the most widely-read books in China for millennia. A collection of Confucius’ most important thoughts and sayings, it was originally compiled by his disciples on fragile bamboo sticks.
4. He believed that traditional customs were the key to peace
Confucius lived during China’s Zhou dynasty (1027-256 BC), which by the 5th and 6th centuries BC had lost much of its power, causing China to fracture into warring tribes, states and factions. Desperate to find a solution to his tumultuous age, Confucius looked to the 600 years before his time. He saw them as a golden age, when rulers governed their people with virtue and compassion. Confucius believed that old texts stating the importance of ritual and ceremony could lay a framework for peace and morality.
He encouraged people to direct their skills away from feeding war towards fuelling harmony and peace, creating a culture of aestheticism, harmony and elegance rather than one of aggression.
5. He emphasised the importance of ritualism
Confucius believed in the power of ritualism. He insisted that rituals and codes – from handshakes when greeting others, to the relationship between young and old, or teacher and student, or husband and wife – could create harmony in everyday society.
This philosophy of demonstrating respect and kindness and of following rituals of etiquette would, he believed, contribute to greater amity between citizens.
6. He achieved immense political success
At the age of 50 in his home state of Lu, Confucius entered local politics and became the minister of crime, where he transformed the fortunes of his state. He established a set of radical rules and guidelines for the etiquette and formalities of the state, as well as assigning work to people according to their age and depending on how weak or strong there were.
7. His followers were from all parts of society, united in their virtuous character
Confucius’ half dozen disciples who travelled with him were drawn from every part of society, from merchants to poor cattle ranchers and even warrior types. None were of noble birth but all had the innate ability to be ‘noble of character’. The loyal disciples represented political meritocracy and a philosophy that Confucius believed should underpin society: rulers who govern by virtue.
8. He spent years travelling around war-torn China
After exiling himself from the state of Lu in 497, probably for not achieving his political aims, Confucius travelled with his trusty disciples across China’s war-torn states in an attempt to influence other rulers to take on his ideas. Over 14 years he went back and forth between eight of the smallest states in China’s central plains. He spent years in some and just weeks in others.
Often caught in the crossfire of warring states, Confucius and his disciples would lose their way and at times faced kidnap, often coming close to death. At one stage, they were stranded and ran out of food for seven days. During this challenging time, Confucius refined his ideas and came up with the concept of the morally superior man, a man of righteousness known as ‘The Exemplary Person’.
9. The tradition of visiting your family at Chinese New Year was inspired by Confucius’ idea of filial piety
Every Chinese New Year, Chinese citizens across the world travel to meet up with their friends and relatives. This is typically the biggest annual mass migration on Earth, and can be traced back to one of Confucius’ most important concepts, known as ‘filial piety’.
Filial piety is known as ‘xiao’ in Chinese, a sign made up of two characters – one for ‘old’ and a second one meaning ‘young’. The concept illustrates the respect the young must show to their elders and ancestors.
10. He founded a school for young men with political ambitions
Aged 68, and after years travelling across China trying to get the rulers of various states to take up his ideas, Confucius abandoned politics and returned to his homeland. He set up a school where young men could learn about his teachings including writing, calligraphy, mathematics, music, charioteering and archery.
To help train a new generation of young Chinese men, Confucius’ disciples took up several positions in the school helping to attract students who had ambitions to get into imperial government. The Imperial Examinations at the school were rigorous, with a pass rate of only 1-2%. Because passing meant great privileges and fortunes as governors, many students tried to cheat in a variety of ways.