The internet is filled with Confucius memes, so much so that the scope often tends to overshadow the historical personality – whom we know as Confucius. Now in terms of traditional Chinese history, Confucius or ‘Master Kong’ (Kongzi or Kongfuzi in Chinese) was a political thinker, philosopher, and the founder of the Rujia school of thought (known as Confucianism), who possibly lived in the period between circa 551 – 479 BC. Incredibly enough, his teachings and philosophy didn’t only leave its lasting impact in Chinese culture but also extended to other East Asian realms, ranging from Japan to Vietnam.
Unfortunately, while Confucius’ teachings have had a fascinating influence on the socio-religious fabric of East Asia, very little historical data is known about his actual life. In fact, all the sources pertaining to Confucius’ life were compiled years after his death, and some of them even contradict each other. To that end, the three main sources, on basis of relative reliability, include – the Analects (Lunyu): compiled by the disciples and followers of Confucius possibly centuries after his death; the Zuozhuan: a narrative history comprising bits of sources from 4th century; and Mengzi: the compiled teachings of the eponymous Mengzi, who was also a follower of Confucius.
Interestingly enough, many of the source material and stories from these three literary works found their way into the Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji), a biography of Confucius by the Han dynasty court historian, Sima Qian (circa 145 – 85 BC). It is also important to understand that the figure of Confucius and his teachings were already famous even during the chaotic period of the Warring States (403-221 BC), thereby suggesting the deep influence of his philosophy on the Chinese society when traditional feudal values were eroded by incessant warfare and strife.
Short History of Confucius –
As for the short history of Confucius’ life, tradition suggests that he was born in the feudal state of Lu (modern-day Shandong province, in coastal East China), possibly in circa mid 6th century BC. His family may have been a part of an earlier aristocracy, but were poverty-stricken commoners by the 6th century time period. However, the economic struggle didn’t stop Confucius from adopting his wholesome approach towards life that valued learning and education above materialistic aspects.
This reflected in Confucius’ career evolution, as he went from managing stables and granary bookkeeping to becoming one of the region’s foremost teachers. Focusing on self-improvement (that would make an ideal gentleman or superior man – junzi) and socializing, as opposed to just court etiquettes and convenient behavior, his methods rather established teaching as a vocation – accessible to people from many walks of life (or not just limited to nobles and feudal lords).
Confucius also tried to implement his humanist ideas into political channels, which bore fruit – with him being chosen as a magistrate and then an assistant minister for public works (in his 50s). Finally, he was even promoted as the minister of justice for the state of Lu. Unfortunately, his tenure was short-lived with many of the court nobles (who wanted to control the ruler) being wary of his ‘moralistic’ influence on the Duke of Lu. Consequently, political machinations forced Confucius to leave the state.
In a twist of irony, during his time of self-imposed exile, Confucius’ popularity grew even further beyond the borders of Lu. The charismatic philosopher, in spite of being politically shunned, propagated his ideas in mostly countrysides, thereby gathering a healthy following of students. By the possible age of 67, Confucius returned to his native Lu and continued to teach and preserve various classical tenets of writing. Finally, he died at the age of 73, possibly in circa 479 BC.
The Moral Code –
Confucius’ teachings were more impactful and even pertinent in that particular age due to the political turmoil and feudal wars waged across China from the 5th to 3rd century BC. Based on good conduct, respect, self-improvement, and familial (and societal) ties, his philosophies and moral code were perceived as the ‘heroic conscience’ that strove to wholesomely improve, rather than radically change, the socio-religious structures of the numerous feudal states and communities of China. Subsequently, even after years of Confucius’ passing, Confucisam is still one of the major traditions of East Asia that combines various tenets of religion, philosophy, and governing methods.
40 of the Deepest Quotes From Confucius –
1) “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”
2) “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”
3) “He who knows all the answers has not been asked all the questions.”
4) “If you make a mistake and do not correct it, this is called a mistake.”
5) “What the superior man seeks is in himself; what the small man seeks is in others.”
6) “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”
7) “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.”
8) “When you see a good person, think of becoming like her/him. When you see someone not so good, reflect on your own weak points.”
9) “Give a bowl of rice to a man and you will feed him for a day. Teach him how to grow his own rice and you will save his life.”
10) “Wisdom, compassion, and courage are the three universally recognized moral qualities of men.”
11) “He who learns but does not think is lost! He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger.”
12) “A superior man is modest in his speech but exceeds in his actions.”
13) “The hardest thing of all is to find a black cat in a dark room, especially if there is no cat.”
14) “Be not ashamed of mistakes and thus make them crimes.”
15) “The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man perfected without trials.”
16) “The man of wisdom is never of two minds;
the man of benevolence never worries;
the man of courage is never afraid.”
17) “He with whom neither slander that gradually soaks into the mind, nor statements that startle like a wound in the flesh, are successful may be called intelligent indeed.”
18) “Only the wisest and stupidest of men never change.”
19) “The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”
20) “By nature, men are nearly alike; by practice, they get to be wide apart.”
21) “If I am walking with two other men, each of them will serve as my teacher. I will pick out the good points of the one and imitate them, and the bad points of the other and correct them in myself.”
22) “He who speaks without modesty will find it difficult to make his words good.”
23) “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”
24) “Silence is a true friend who never betrays.”
25) “He who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place and all the stars turn towards it.”
26) “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”
27) “Fine words and an insinuating appearance are seldom associated with true virtue.”
28) “Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.”
29) “To see what is right, and not to do it, is want of courage or of principle.”
30) “In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.”
31) “When anger rises, think of the consequences.”
32) “The superior man, when resting in safety, does not forget that danger may come. When in a state of security he does not forget the possibility of ruin. When all is orderly, he does not forget that disorder may come. Thus his person is not endangered, and his States and all their clans are preserved.”
33) “To be wronged is nothing, unless you continue to remember it.”
34) “Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart.”
35) “Forget injuries, never forget kindnesses.”
36) “The more man meditates upon good thoughts, the better will be his world and the world at large.”
37) “It is not the failure of others to appreciate your abilities that should trouble you, but rather your failure to appreciate theirs.”
38) “Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.”
39) “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
And finally, a quote that alludes to the realm of history –
40) “Study the past if you would define the future.”