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Confucius is China's most famous
teacher, philosopher, and political theorist. He was born in the state of Lu
in 551 B.C. and died there in 479 B.C. It is difficult to separate the legends
about Confucius from the scarce information that exists about his life and
background. Confucius likely descended from a noble but impoverished family.
Through dedicated self-education he became the most learned man of his day,
eventually acquiring a following of three thousand students and seventy-two
The basis of Confucianism can be found in the history of the time when Confucius
lived -- the violent time before the unification of China under the Ch'in dynasty
in 221 B.C. Confucius was strongly motivated to find an intellectual basis
for a stable political and social order. His solution was to retrieve the old
rituals and values, which had fallen into obscurity. It was these practices,
he believed, that had been essential to the stability of the old feudal order
and would reanimate the present order. Consequently, he was drawn to the traditional
legends and stories of the ancient sage kings (especially the duke of Chou,
d. 1094 B.C.) who ruled with wisdom and virtue and were opposed to force and
violence. He is said to have preserved and edited many of the early classics
of Chinese literature.
The most enduring legacy of Confucius's teachings is the Analects of Confucius,
which was compiled by his disciples after his death. At the core of these ideas
is a firm belief in the basic goodness of the human heart. The goal of every
man, according to Confucius, should be to cultivate his basic goodness, to
achieve jen, or what might be translated as "virtue." This
goal can be reached by careful attention to the customs and rituals of civilized
life (Li) and by listening to the dictates of one's true nature or
inner heart (Chung), which embraces reciprocity, righteousness, and
filial piety. The presence of a vanguard of properly educated noblemen in this
endeavor was crucial, and Confucius himself spent much of his life teaching
such aristocrats. He taught them that political and social stability is realized
through the exercise of virtue, wisdom, and ritual in government. "The
Master said, Govern the people by regulations, keep order among them by chastisements,
and they will flee from you, and lose all self-respect. Govern them by
moral force, keep order by ritual and they will keep their self-respect and
come to you of their own accord."1 The
Confucian tradition illustrates the main Chinese solution to the ancient problem
of controlling the abuse of power: instructing the rulers in the virtues of
Although his own time remained full of strife, Confucius's teachings eventually
came to dominate Chinese thought and were made official orthodoxy under the
Han (206 B.C.-A.D. 220). Numerous schools of Confucianism arose and persisted,
losing their official status in China only in 1911
 The Analects (London:
George Allen & Unwin, 1949), p. 88. Emphasis added by Pierre Goodrich.
Works by the Author
Confucius. The Texts of Confucianism. 2d ed. Translated by James
Legge. Oxford: Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1899.
Confucius. The Analects of Confucius. Translated by Arthur Waley.
London: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1949.
Confucius. The Analects of Confucius. 1st ed. Translated by W. E.
Soothill. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1937.
Confucius. The Four Books. Translated by James Legge. The Chinese
Book Co., 1930.
Confucius. The Confucian Conception of Jen. Translated by George
K. C. Yeh. London: The China Society, 1943.
Confucius. The Wisdom of Confucius. Translated by Lin Yutang. New
York: The Modern Library, 1938.
Works about the Author
Goodrich, L. C. and H.C. Fenn. A Syllabus of the History of Chinese Civilization
and Culture. New York: The China Society of America.
Pound, Ezra. The Classic Anthology Defined by Confucius. Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1954.
The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The
Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.