Have you ever heard about Confucius? I guess you have. Do you know why is he famous? Idon’t think so. Who is this person, that somehow is famous all around the world for saying …Yes? What did he actually say? Most often he is known for saying a lot of different things.But that cannot be the reason for his fame. Let us look closer into who the person that weknow as Confucius really was and why it is that he is so famous all around the world.
Confucius is actually not Confucius. His name is Qju Kong, also known as Kong Zi, Kong being the family name of the famous man and “Zi” being a title, which would be translated to “Master”. But when in the 16th century people from Europe came to China, they heard a lot about that man who was known as Kong Zi, and they thought that he must have been a very important figure, a very smart guy. This is why they wanted to translate whatever it was that made Kong Zi so famous, but who in 16th century Europe would have bought a book by or aboutKong Zi? A name that already sounds as if it comes from far away. They needed a new name and so they picked Confucius, which sounds more like the name of a European intellectual of the past, maybe one of the Roman philosophers. And, as a matter of fact, until today, many Chinese people have a Chinese name and an English name. An English name which they pick as a curtesy to Western people, who have often troubles pronouncing the Chinese names.
The question, however, of why the British and French were so eager to bring Kong Zi’s ideas to Europe, remains. In order to understand the teachings of Kong Zi we have to first look at the time in which he lived and then we can look at his life. In the end, then, we might understand his popularity.
Chinese history is divided in dynasties. The oldest dynasties go back as far as 8 thousand years. However, we do not know much about these old dynasties. Our knowledge starts with the Xia dynasty, which dates from the 2100 until 1600 BCE. Everything before this is mostly speculation on terms of some artifacts. After 500 years of Xia dynasty, we have the Shang dynasty from 1600 until 1050 BCE. The Shang dynasty is followed by the Zhou dynasty from 1046 until 256 BCE and is again divided in two parts: the Western Zhou dynasty from 1046 until 771 BCE and the Eastern Zhou dynasty from 771 until 256 BCE.
Throughout all these dynasties, the Chinese territory was very different from today. In a sense, it was comparable to the European Middle Ages. Many small kingdoms existed in the area, and were united under the leadership of one of those kingdoms, which would give general policies and collect some sort of payments for its protection. In the last of the three above mentioned dynasties. the Zhou-Kingdom would be the centre of power of all the small states around its own territory. It was divided into an Eastern and a Western era because, at some point, the Zhou started invading a huge territory in the East, a war broke in the territory and the leadership of the Zhou-Kingdom was constantly questioned and had to be proven through war. This is why the time of the Eastern Zhou dynasty is also known and characterized by the Warrior states. This was the time when Kong Zi, Confucius, was born. He lived between 551 and 478 BCE, so during the Eastern Zhou dynasty.
Let us now look more closely at Kong Zi’s life. He came from a good family, his father was an official in one of the many Chinese provinces. He died, though, when Kong Zi was still a little boy, which is why he grew up only with his mother and brother, knowing the pains of poverty. As a young man, he supported his family through various jobs. He would work as a book keeper, as a sheperd and as many other things that would provide enough money for his family. Through a beneficinary of his, it was possible for him to study at a higher school and become an intellectual. He would learn about the six classics, six books which were the core element of philosophy in the Western Zhou dynasty. Kong Zi thought that his country needed to return to these principles in order to overcome the current state of constant war.
For this purpose, he went to the Court of the King to serve as an advisor, but when he started finding the King constantly in the company of young and beautiful women, he left the Court and travelled through the Chinese provinces. Staying true to his ideals, Kong Zi travelled from Court to Court, but he could not find a King who was worthy of his advise and who would follow the strict principles of what was then, already, the anchient Chinese philosophy.
Having reached an old age of almost 70 years, he returned home and became a teacher. The Chinese often refer to him today as the “Teacher of Teachers”. As an interlectual and a philosopher, he would teach the rules of the ancient Chinese philosophy. In other words, he was not the author of his own teachings, but rather a reminder of the ancient values that had been forgotten in his time. The six classics, the six books, today sadly only including five of them, were the main core of his teaching, and were praying the key values, such as benevolence and integrity.
After his death his teachings or his re-teaching of ancient values became very successful in the following Han dynasty, but were then forgotten in the following dynasties, only to be rediscovered later on. Over the centuries many values have been included and his theories have been revised many times. Today the main Confucian values are benevolence, righteousness, respect for rites and etiquette, knowledge and wisdom and honesty.
One question remains still unanswered. What did Confucias say? Once, he said that a great leader should not have power because of his mere streanght, but because of his moral character, his moral authority. His teachings include hundreds of rules and restrictions, but to sum up his teachings in one sentence, Kong Zi stated: “Do not inflict among others what you do not want to have inflicted upon yourself”, which is the Golden Rule of Confucinism, but which also is a rule we know today from the Bible. We see, therefore, the universality of his teachings. The consistency with which these rules come back to us, even though they are forgotten from time to time, gives hope for them to become truly realized at some point.
Today all of Confucius’ sayings are collected in a book called “The Analects”, but at the end of the day he himself only re-discovered that what had been lost in the past could still provide the answers for the present and future.