Confucius (551 BC-479 BC)

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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 close disciples.

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 self-restraint.

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




[1] 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.

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