What Did Confucius Say?

If power, prestige, and wealth were taken as the standards of achievement, Confucius would hardly be considered to have been a success in his own lifetime. K'ung Ch'iu, or Master Kung, the man who later became known in the West by the Latinized name of Confucius, was born in the state of Lu in northeastern China about the middle of the sixth century B.C. This was a period when China was divided into several feudal kingdoms.

Not much is known about Confucius's personal life. Even his traditional dates, 551-479 B.C., are only approximate. It appears that his family, which probably once ranked among the aristocracy, had fallen on hard times and may even have been quite poor. While he was an educated person, Confucius never held high political office. His highest aspiration was to contribute to the cause of civilization as he knew it. For him, this meant being employed by a ruler and having the opportunity to translate his ideas into action. Though many years of his life were spent traveling from one feudal state to another trying to gain an audience for his ideas, he never was rewarded with a high post. Eventually he returned to his native state of Lu and died without knowing the impact his ideas and his example as a teacher would have for centuries to come, not only in China but in all of East Asia.

During the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), Confucius came to be recognized as a great teacher. In time, his teachings became the basis of the Chinese educational system, which in turn was used to select government officials throughout much of Chinese history down to the twentieth century. Equally important, the ideas of Confucius and his followers penetrated to the very core of the lives of ordinary Chinese people. These ideas became the guiding principles of Chinese life. They gave structure and focus to the Chinese sense of what it means to be human.

When we want to know what Confucius said, we turn to a small book that records some of the conversations he had with his students and their accounts of his actions of particular occasions. The Chinese name for this book is the Lun-yü, which means discussions or conversations. This title is usually translated into English as the Analects, meaning selection or choice. Since the Analects of Confucius is not a philosophical or religious treatise with a single point of view but rather a selection of words and deeds of Confucius that his followers found most impressive, this English translation is quite appropriate.

One of the distinctive features of Confucius's teaching is the confidence that he expressed that human beings are essentially alike by nature. Confucius thought that the important differences in human beings are determined by environment and education, by the habits and preferences they develop and the lives they lead. For this reason Confucius put great emphasis on learning. But because he saw people as constantly changing and growing, his teaching was not the same for everyone. Readers of the Analects are always struck by the fact that Confucius never failed to take into account the personality of each individual and his particular stage of development. Even the principles of humaneness and filial piety (devotion to one's parents and family members), which are so fundamental to Confucius's view of human relations, were not set doctrines or fixed rules of behavior. What Confucius offered was a guide to the way human beings ought to feel about themselves and others and to the way that feelings and actions should be related.

Acknowledgment: The consultant for this unit was Dr. Irene Bloom, a specialist in Chinese intellectual history.

Selected Primary-Source Readings from the Analects, All with Discussion Questions: