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Confucius (孔夫子, py Kǒng Fūzǐ, WG: K'ung Fu-tzu, lit. "Master Kong") (traditionally 551 BC - 479 BC) is a famous sage and social philosopher of China. His philosophy emphasized personal and governmental morality, and gained popularity mostly due to its firm grounding in traditional Chinese attitudes. His influence on Chinese civilization cannot be overestimated; it has also spread widely over Japan, Korea and Vietnam, especially through Confucianism, the doctrine developed by his disciples and commentators.

Table of contents
1 His life
2 Names
3 Philosophy
4 Temples
5 Successors and descendants
6 See also
8 External links
9 Further Reading

His life

He was born in the Chinese State of Lu (魯國) in 551 BC (Hundred Schools of Thought, Spring and Autumn Period) (the area is now part of present-day Shandong Province) and was the son of a noble family who had recently fled from the State of Song. His father, however, died when he was three and he grew up in very poor conditions with his mother. As a young man he gained the position of stable manager of the influential Chi family, but resigned after several years. He spent the next sixteen years teaching and gathering disciples.

In his early 50's, Confucius became acting prime minister, then prime minister of Lu and used the position to enforce his new philosophy. After about four years he resigned again in opposition to the government and spent thirteen years wandering the area teaching and vainly seeking another government position. He spent his last five years at his home in Lu. Throughout his life, he attempted to learn everything there was to know, and then passing on the knowledge he possessed to others.



Although Confucianism is usually followed in a religious manner by the Chinese, it is inaccurate to refer to it as a religion because it makes little reference to theological or spiritual matters (God(s), the afterlife, etc.).

Confucius's principles gained wide acceptance primarily because of their basis in common Chinese opinion. He championed strong familial loyalty, ancestor worship, and respect of elders by their children and of husbands by their wives, and used the family as a basis for an ideal government. He expressed the well-known principle to not do to others what you do not want done to yourself (the Golden Rule). He also looked nostalgically upon earlier days, and urged the Chinese, particularly the politicians, to model themselves on earlier examples -- although whether or not older rulers had governed by Confucian standards is dubious.

More information can be read at the page Confucianism.

Theory of Ethics

The Confucian theory of ethics is based on three important concepts:

Li (禮)

While Confucius grew up, li (禮) referred to three aspects of life, that of sacrificing to the gods, social and political institutions, and daily behaviour. It was believed that li orginated from the heavens. Confucius redefined li arguing it flowed not from heaven but from humanity. He redefined li to refer to all actions committed by a person to build the ideal society. Li to Confucius became every action by a person aiming at meeting the person's surface desires. These can be either good or bad. Generally attempts to obtain short term pleasure are bad while those that in the long term try to make your life better are generally good.

Yi (義)

To Confucius, yi (義) was the origin of li. Yi can best be translated as righteousness. While doing things because of li, your own self interest, was not necessarily bad, you would be a better, more righteous person if you base your life upon following yi. This means that rather than pursuing your own selfish interests you should do what is right and what is moral. Yi is based upon reciprocity. An example of living by yi is how you must mourn your father and mother for three years after their death. Since they took care of you for the first three years of your life you must reciprocate by living in mourning for three years.

Ren (仁)

Just as li flows out of yi, so yi flows out of ren (仁). Ren can best be translated as human heartedness. His moral system was based upon empathy and understanding others, rather than divinely ordained rules. To live by ren was even better than living by the rules of yi. To live by ren one used another Confucian version of the Golden Rule: he argued that you must always treat your inferiors just as you would want your superiors to treat you. Virtue under Confucius is based upon harmony with others, very different from the Aristotelian view of virtue being personal excellence.

Political Theory

Confucius' political thought is based upon his ethical thought. He argues that the best government is one that rules through "rites" and people's natural morality, rather than using bribery and force. He explained this in one of the most important analect : 1. "If the people be led by laws, and uniformity sought to be given them by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame. If they be led by virtue, and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of shame, and moreover will become good." (Translated by James Legge) This "sense of shame" is somewhat an internalization of duty, where the punishment precedes the evil action, instead of following it in the form of laws as in Legalism.

While he supported the idea of the all-powerful Emperor, probably because of the chaotic state of China at his time, his philosophies contained a number of elements to limit the power of the rulers. He argued for according language with truth - thus honesty was of the most paramount importance. Even in facial expression, one sought always to achieve this. In discussing the relationship between a son and his father (or a subject and his King), he underlined the need to give due respect to superiors; this demanded that the inferior must give advice to his superior if the superior was considered to be taking the wrong course of action in a given situation.

This was built upon by his disciple Mencius to argue that if the King was not acting like a King, he should no longer be King and lost the Mandate of Heaven. Therefore, a tyrannicide is justified because a tyrant is more a thief than a King.

In many ways his political theory resembles that of Roman Stoicism.

Confucius's political theory worked very well. Although there were many disruptions, Chinese political history during the era of Confucianism was generally more stable than other countries'.


Since early after Confucius' death, Qufu, his hometown, has been the place for devotions and remembrance of the master. It is still a main destination for cultural tourism, and many Chinese people go to visit his grave and the surronding temples. In China, there are many temple where one can find together representations of Buddha, Lao Zi and Confucius. However, there are also many temples dedicated to him that have been used for Confucianist ceremonies.

The following is a list of temples that are dedicated to Confucius:

Successors and descendants

Confucius' philosophical school was first continued by his direct disciples and by his grandson Zisi. Mencius and Xun Zi are his two great followers, one on each "side" of his philosophy, let's say idealism and realism. They built upon and expanded his ethico-political system.

His descendants were identified and honored by the imperial government. They were honoured the rank of a marquis 35 times since Gaozu of the Han Dynasty, and they were promoted to the rank of duke 42 times from the Tang Dynasty to 1935. One of the most common titles is Duke Yansheng (衍聖公 Yǎnshng gōng), which means "overflowing with sainthood." The latest descendant is K'ung Te-ch'eng (孔德成 Kǒng Dchng) (born 1920), who is the 77th generation and a professor in the National Taiwan University.

See also


External links

Further Reading