Confucius wanted most of all to help people live in harmony and peace with one another, and he urged people to follow fairly strict social codes and to be respectful of one another in order to do so.  His message was not difficult to understand, which may be why it was so successful and has proven to be so long lasting, and it also reflected popular Chinese opinion. In many ways, Confucius can be credited with holding the vast China empire, with all its provinces and different peoples, together for many centuries because he promoted civility and respect for self and others.  He urged families to be loyal, encouraged ancestor worship, and said that children must respect their elders and wives must respect their husbands.  By building a strong family base, Confucius believed, you could build strong communities and ultimately a strong, unified and peaceful country.


Confucius was born in 551 BC (named Kong Qiu) in the State of Lu, which is now part of the Shandong Province.  His father was 70 and his mother only 18 at the time of his birth, and although his family came from nobility, they had fallen on hard times and Confucius was raised in poverty. His father died when he was three, making his childhood even more difficult. 

Much of what is known about Confucius is legend rather than indisputable fact, but it is known that he married at the age of 19 and soon after became a father himself.  Tradition has it that he studied ritual, music and lute, and by the time he reached middle age we was instructing his own disciples.  At this time he was also involved in politics in the State of Lu, and according to some sources he was named Minister of Public Works and then Minister of Crime after the age of 50 (other sources say he did not hold a major position). 

According to legend, the neighbouring State of Qi wanted to stop Lu from becoming too powerful, so they sent 100 good horses and 80 beautiful dancing girls to the Duke of Lu, who went on a three-day binge and did not attend to his duties. Confucius was apparently so disgusted with this immorality that he refused to sever the counsellors meat at the sacrificial rites and was made to leave, or left himself in disapproval.  He then embarked on a period of wandering, during which he travelled around north-central China and spoke about his beliefs.

At the age of 68, he returned to Luc and continued to teach.  The death of his son and of his favourite disciples weighed heavily upon him before he died in 479 BC at the age of 72, a number that is considered magical in early Chinese literature.


Confucius’s teachings are set down in the Lunyu or Analects.  These collected volumes of wisdom were compiled long after his death and appear in various versions.  Confucius presents himself in these texts as a “transmitter” rather than an inventor, and it is not certain if the Analects contain any of his own writing or just that of his disciples.

In any case, the Analects later established Confucius as the authority on courtliness and personal decorum, and for the emphasis he placed on study, he is seen by the Chinese people as the Greatest Master.  He urged people to think for themselves and to study the Six Classics, which were the Book (which recorded historical events), the Book of Rites, the Book of Music, the Book of Change, the Book of Odes and the Spring and Autumn Annals.  These are the basic teaching materials of what we know as Confucianism today.  Confucius also believed scholars should be schooled in the Six Arts, which include the rites, music, archery, horsemanship, calligraphy and mathematics.  Together, the Six Classics and the Six Arts would make a scholar strive for perfection, benevolent and compassionate, as well as intent on integrating his knowledge in his own social life, making learning useful and continued to improve himself. (For nearly 2,000 years Confucius was thought to be the author or editor of these classic books, but historians now know they preceded him.)

Confucius believed in man’s innate goodness and thought that families were the foundation upon which all else was built.  He called on people to obey their parents and love and respect their siblings, which he believed would naturally then extend to obeying fair rulers and respecting people outside the family.   He did not, however, believe in loyally following unjust rulers, as his own background proves.  He thought that rulers should rule as a father rules his family, with love and fairness.  If he failed to do that, the people were entitled to overthrow him, according to Confucius.

Many short phrases espoused by Confucius have come down to us through the ages, which is why the formula ‘Confucius says . . ..” is so well-known.  One of his most famous sayings if very close to the Golden Rule upheld by Christians and states, “never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”  That, and many other of his famous utterances, reflect his social philosophy which centred on ren, or compassion.

His teachings are also considered to be close to humanism because he stressed how important it was to behave properly to one another and placed more emphasis on ethics and social behaviour than on deities and the hereafter.  It would be mistaken, however, to think Confucius did not believe in gods and eternal life. He very much believed in the Mandate of Heaven and that people could not change their fates – they could simply live the lives they were given in the best way possible and leave this world making the best mark upon it. He also instructed his followers to never neglect their offerings to Heaven.  Still, many more people are familiar with some of the Indian gods including Krishna and Shiva and less familiar with the names of various Chinese gods, and that may have to do with Confucius’s lack of emphasis on the divine rather than the human. 

Confucius had disciples during his lifetime and soon after his death, his hometown of Qufu became a place of devotion and remains a popular tourist destination till this day, but it wasn’t until the 4th century BC that he was truly recognised as a sage who should have been revered and even made king.  At the end of the 4th century, Mencius said of Confucius: Ever since man came into this world, there has never been one greater than Confucius.”

Some terminology

Li refers to three aspects of life: sacrificing to the gods, social and political institutions and daily behaviour.  In Confucius’ time, li was believed to come from heaven, but Confucius said that it sprang from humanity.  He redefined li to mean any and all actions people undertook to build a better society.  Li came to mean all actions taken to meet desires, and this could be good or bad.  In general, seeking short-term pleasures was viewed as bad, and working toward long-term goals to improve one’s life was good.

Yi can be translated as righteousness, and is the origin of Li.  Yi is doing good for the right reason and is based on reciprocity.  You owe someone the equivalent of what they have given you.

Yi, in turn, flows out of ren, or compassion. Confucian ethics are based upon empathy and understanding others.  To live by ren was better than to live by yi, and here, Confucius preached the same Golden Rule familiar to readers to the Bible: treat other people as you want to be treated yourself.  To be virtuous was to live harmoniously with others.

Some famous quotations from the Analects

  • Forget injuries, never forget kindnesses.
  • He who will not economise will have to agonise.
  • I hear and I forget.  I see and I remember.  I do and I understand.
  • Everything has its beauty but not everyone sees it.
  • Be not ashamed of mistakes and thus make them crimes.
  • Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.
  • Ignorance is the night of the mind, but a night without moon and star.
  • It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.
  • Men’s natures are alike; it is their habits that carry them far apart.
  • Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in getting up every time we do.
  • Respect yourself and others will respect you.
  • Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart.
  • Study the past if you would define the future.
  • Have no friends not equal to yourself.
  • To see what is right and not to do it is want of courage.
  • What the superior man seeks is in himself; what the small man seeks is in others.
  • When anger rises, think of the consequences.
  • Fine words and an insinuating appearance are seldom associated with true virtue.
  • Hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles.
  • He who speaks without modesty will find it difficult to make his words good.
  • I am not one who was born in the possession of knowledge; I am one who is fond of antiquity and earnest in seeking it there.
  • If a man takes no thought about what is distant, he will find sorrow near at hand.
  • Is virtue a thing remote?  I wish to be virtuous, and lo!  Virtue is at hand.
  • Learning without thought is labour lost; thought without learning is perilous.
  • Recompense injury with justice and recompense kindness with kindness.
  • The cautious seldom err.
  • The firm, the enduring, the simple and the modest are near to virtue.
  • The scholar who cherishes the love of comfort is not fit to be deemed a scholar.
  • The superior man is satisfied and composed; the mean man is always full of distress.
  • The superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions.
  • The superior man does not set his mind either for anything or against anything; what is right he will follow.
  • There are three things that the superior man guards against.  In youth, lust.  When he is strong, quarrelsomeness. When he is old, covetousness.
  • Things that are done, it is needless to speak about.  Things that are past, it is needless to blame.
  • To be able to practice five things everywhere under heaven constitutes perfect virtue: gravity, generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness and kindness.
  • To go beyond is as wrong as to fall short.
  • Virtue is more to man than either water or fire. I have seen men die treading on water and fire, but I have never seen a man die from treading the course of virtue.
  • Virtue is not left to stand alone. He who practices it will have neighbours.
  • What the superior man seeks is in himself. What the mean man seeks is in others.
  • What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.
  • When a man’s knowledge is sufficient to attain, and his virtue is not sufficient to enable him to hold, whatever he may have gained, he will lose again.
  • When we see men of worth, we should think of equalling them; when we see men of a contrary character, we should turn inwards and examine ourselves.
  • When you have faults, do not fear to abandon them.
  • When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it – this is knowledge.

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