Confucius (551–479 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G045-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 24, 2019, from

1. Life, works and influence

Although Confucius enjoyed great popularity as a teacher and many of his students found their way into political office, his enduring frustration was that personally he achieved only marginal influence in the practical politics of the day. He was a philosophe rather than a theoretical philosopher; he wanted desperately to hold sway over intellectual and social trends, and to improve the quality of life that was dependent upon them. Although there were occasions on which important political figures sought his advice and services, over his years in the state of Lu, he held only minor offices at court.

Early on, however, and certainly by the time of his death, Confucius had risen in reputation to become a model of erudition, attracting attention from all segments of society. As time passed and the stock in Confucius rose, the historical records began to ‘recall’ details about his official career that had been supposedly lost. Over time, his later disciples altered the wording of his biographical record in his favour, effectively promoting him from minor official to several of the highest positions in the land.

Nor does the story end there. By the time of the Han dynasty (206 bcad 220), Confucius was celebrated as the ‘uncrowned king’ of the state of Lu, and by the fourth century ad, any prefecture wanting to define itself as a political entity was required by imperial decree to erect a temple to Confucius. Gods in China are local cultural heroes who are remembered by history as having contributed meaning and value to the tradition, and of these revered ancestors, that god called Confucius has been remembered best.

Confucius was certainly a flesh and blood historical figure, as real as Jesus or George Washington. But the received Confucius was and still is a ‘living corporate person’, in the sense that generation after generation of descendants have written commentaries on the legacy of Confucius in an effort to make his teachings appropriate for their own times and places. ‘Confucianism’ is a lineage of scholars who have continued to elaborate upon the canonical texts passed on after the life of Confucius came to an end, extending the way of living that Confucius had begun.

Although the ascent of Confucius to exalted status began early in the tradition with the continuation of his work by his many disciples, it was not until Confucianism was established as the state ideology during the Han dynasty (206 bcad 220) that his school of thought became an unchallenged orthodoxy. By developing his insights around the most basic and enduring aspects of the human experience – family, friendship, education, community and so on – Confucius had guaranteed their continuing relevance. One characteristic of Confucianism that began with Confucius himself, and made it so resilient in the Chinese tradition, is its porousness and adaptability. Confucius said of himself that he only transmitted traditional culture, he did not create it; his contribution was simply to take ownership of the tradition, and adapt the wisdom of the past to his own present historical moment.

Just as Confucius reinvented the culture of the Zhou and earlier dynasties for his own era, Han dynasty Confucianism drew into itself many of the ideas owned by competing schools in the earlier centuries, and in so doing, fortified itself against their challenge. This pattern – absorbing competing ideas and adapting them to the specific conditions of the time – sustained Confucianism across the centuries as the official doctrine of the Chinese empire until the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911. In fact, an argument can be made that just as the composite of Buddhism and Confucianism produced neo-Confucianism, the combination of Marxism and Confucianism in this century has created a kind of neo-neo-Confucianism.

As recently as the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife, and her cohorts mounted an Anti-Confucius campaign that swept the country. The great irony of this Anti-Confucius campaign was that during this period one could not acquire a copy of the Analects, not because they had been banned or suppressed but because they were sold out; the entire country was put to work reading the teachings of Confucius in order to criticize them.

Citing this article:
Lau, D.C. and Roger T. Ames. Life, works and influence. Confucius (551–479 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G045-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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