The First Teacher
|If there is one name with which Chinese culture has been associated it is
Confucius’— Kung Fu-tzu or Kung the Master. Chinese reverently speak of
him as the First Teacher— not that there were no teachers before him, but
because he stands first in rank. For though Confucius did not author
Chinese culture, he was its supreme editor.
Confucius was born around 551 B.C. in the principality of Lu in what is
now Shantung province. We know nothing for certain about his ancestors,
but it is clear that his early home life was modest.
His father died before Confucius was three, leaving his upbringing to a
loving but impoverished mother. Financially, therefore, he was forced to
make his own way, at first through menial tasks. The hardship and poverty
of these early years gave him a tie with the common people, which was to
be reflected in the democratic tenor of his entire philosophy.
|In his early twenties, having held several insignificant government posts
and contracted a not too successful marriage, he established himself as a
tutor. This was obviously his vocation. The reputation of his personal
qualities and practical wisdom spread rapidly, attracting a circle of
Prompted as if by call—“ At fifty I perceived the divine mission”— he gave
his next thirteen years, with many a backward look and resisting footstep,
to “the long trek,” in which he wandered from state to state proffering
unsolicited advice to rulers on how to improve their governing and seeking
a real opportunity to put his ideas into practice.
In time , with a change of administration in his own state, he was invited
to return. There, recognizing that he was now too old for office anyway,
he spent his last five years quietly teaching and editing the classics of
China’s past. In 479 B.C., at the age of seventy-two, he died.
|A failure as a politician, Confucius was undoubtedly one of the world’s
greatest teachers . Prepared to instruct in history, poetry, government,
propriety, mathematics, music, divination, and sports, he was, in the
manner of Socrates, a one-man university. His method of teaching was
There was nothing other-worldly about him. He loved to be with people, to
dine out, to join in the chorus of a good song, and to drink, though not
in excess. His disciples reported that “When at leisure the Master’s
manner was informal and cheerful. He was affable, yet firm; dignified yet
Power and wealth could have been his for the asking if he had been willing
to compromise with those in authority. He preferred, instead, his
integrity. He never regretted the choice.
Until this century, every Chinese school child for two thousand years
raised his clasped hands each morning toward a table in the schoolroom
that bore a plaque bearing Confucius’ name . Virtually every Chinese
student has pored over his sayings for hours, with the result that they
have become a part of the Chinese mind and trickled down to the illiterate
in spoken proverbs .
The Problem Confucius Faced
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For the clue to
Confucius’ power and influence, we must see both his life and his teaching
against the background of the problem he faced. This was the problem of
social anarchy. By Confucius’ time the interminable warfare had
degenerated from chivalry toward the unrestrained horror of the Period of
the Warring States. The horror reached its height in the century following
As the clue to the power of Confucianism lies in its answer to this
problem of social cohesion, we need to see that problem in historical
perspective. Confucius lived at a time when social cohesion had
deteriorated to a critical point. The glue was no longer holding.
When tradition is
no longer adequate to hold society together, human life faces the gravest
crisis it has encountered. One of these was put forward by the
What do you do when people don’t behave? Hit them. It is a classic answer
to a classic question. What people understand best is force.
Actually, a social philosophy as different from the Realists’ as fire from
ice did exist alongside it in Confucius’ China. Known as
after its principal spokesman,
or Mo Ti, it proposed as the solution to China’s social problem not force
but love— universal love (chien ai). Mo Tzu simply disagreed with charges
that his emphasis on love was sentimental and impractical.
Neither of these
rival answers to the problem of social cohesion impressed Confucius. He
rejected the Realists’ answer of force because it was clumsy and external.
As for the Mohists’ reliance on love, Confucius agreed with the Realists
in dismissing it as utopian. Confucius’ foremost disciple,
used this same logic to reject Mo Tzu’s call “to love all equally.”
The West’s current approach to the social problem— through the cultivation
of reason— probably did not occur to Confucius. If it had he would have
dismissed it as not thought through.
Confucius was all but obsessed with
for he saw it as the chief shaper of inclinations and attitudes. When
tradition is no longer spontaneous and unquestioned, it must be shored up
and reinforced through conscious attention.
With the perspicacity of a politician taking his stand on the
Constitution, he appealed to the Classics as establishing the guidelines
for his platform. Yet all the while he was interpreting, modifying,
reformulating. Unknown to his people, we can feel confident, he was
effecting a momentous reorientation by shifting tradition from an
unconscious to a conscious foundation.
The shift from spontaneous to deliberate tradition requires that the
powers of critical intelligence be turned both to keeping the force of
tradition intact, and to determining which ends tradition shall henceforth
For nearly two thousand years the first sentence a Chinese child, living
in the direct light of Confucius, was taught to read was not, “Look, look;
look and see,” but rather “Human beings are by nature good.”
Similarly, the interminable anecdotes and maxims of Confucius’ Analects
were designed to create the prototype of what the Chinese hoped the
Chinese character would become.
The Content of Deliberate
tradition differs from spontaneous tradition in requiring attention. It
requires attention first to maintain its force in the face of the
increased individualism that threatens to erode it. This Confucius
regarded as the main responsibility of education in its broadest sense.
But, second, it requires that attention be given to the content of that
The main outlines of Confucius’ answer can be gathered under five key
Jen, etymologically a combination of the character for “human being” and
for “two,” names the ideal relationship that should pertain between
people. Jen involves simultaneously a feeling of humanity toward others
and respect for oneself, an indivisible sense of the dignity of human life
wherever it appears.
second concept is chun tzu. If jen is the ideal relationship between human
beings, chun tzu refers to the ideal term in such relations. It has been
translated the Superior Person and Humanity-at-its-Best. Perhaps the
Mature Person is as faithful a rendering of the term as any. The chun tzu
is the opposite of a petty person, a mean person, a small-spirited person.
It is only the person who is entirely real, Confucius thought, who can
establish the great foundations of civilized society. Only as those who
make up society are transformed into chun tzus can the world move toward
The third concept, li, has two meanings. Its first meaning is
the way things should be done. Propriety covers a wide range, but we can
get the gist of what Confucius was concerned with if we look at his
teachings on the Rectification of Names, the Doctrine of the Mean, the
Five Constant Relationships, the Family, and Age. The Five Constant
Relationships that constitute the warp and woof of social life are, in the
Confucian scheme, those between parent and child, husband and wife, elder
sibling and junior sibling, elder friend and junior friend, and ruler and
subject. The other meaning of the word is
which changes right— in the sense of what it is right to do— into rite.
The fourth pivotal concept Confucius sought to devise for his countrymen
was te. Literally this word meant power, specifically the power by which
men are ruled. Real te, therefore, is the power of moral example. In the
final analysis, goodness becomes embodied in society neither through might
nor through law, but through the impress of persons we admire. Confucius
would also have seconded Thomas Jefferson, who thought that “the whole art
of government consists in the art of being honest.”
The final concept in the Confucian gestalt is wen. This refers to “the
arts of peace” as contrasted to “the arts of war”; to music, art, poetry,
the sum of culture in its aesthetic and spiritual mode. Confucius valued
the arts tremendously. A simple refrain once cast such a spell over him
that for three months he became indifferent to what he ate. He considered
people who are indifferent to art only half human.
The Confucian Project
Let us assume
that the deliberate tradition Confucius sought to fashion was in place.
How would life appear to a Chinese, set within it? It would beckon as a
never-ending project of self-cultivation toward the end of becoming more
fully human. The good man or woman in the Confucian scheme is the one who
is always trying to become better.
Ethics or Religion?
Is Confucianism a religion, or is it an ethic? The answer depends on how
one defines religion. With its close attention to personal conduct and the
moral order, Confucianism approaches life from a different angle than do
other religions, but that does not necessarily disqualify it religiously.
If religion is taken in its widest sense, as a way of life woven around a
people’s ultimate concerns, Confucianism clearly qualifies. Even if
religion is taken in a narrower sense, as a concern to align humanity with
the transcendental ground of its existence, Confucianism is still a
religion, albeit a muted one.
To see the transcendent dimension of Confucianism in perspective, we need
to set it against the religious background of the ancient China in which
Confucius lived. Until the first millennium B.C., the unquestioned outlook
was a compound of three related ingredients: First, Heaven and Earth were
considered a continuum.
In each of these great features of early Chinese religion— its sense of
continuity with the ancestors, its sacrifice, and its augury— there was a
common emphasis. The emphasis was on Heaven instead of Earth. To
understand the total dimension of Confucianism as a religion it is
important to see Confucius shifting his people’s attention from Heaven to
Earth without dropping Heaven from the picture entirely.
“Recognize that you know what you know, and that you are ignorant of what
you do not know,” he said. 24 “Hear much, leave to one side that which is
doubtful, and speak with due caution concerning the remainder. See much,
leave to one side that of which the meaning is not clear, and act
carefully with regard to the rest.”
One specific illustration of the way in which Confucius shifted the focus
from Heaven to Earth is seen in his change of emphasis from ancestor
worship to filial piety. In ancient China the dead were actually
worshiped. True to the conservative component in his nature, Confucius did
nothing to interrupt the ancestral rites themselves. He did not deny that
the spirits of the dead exist; on the contrary he advised treating them
“as if they were present.” At the same time his own emphasis was directed
toward the living family.
The extent to which Confucius shifted emphasis from Heaven to Earth should
not lead us to think that he sundered Earth from Heaven entirely. He did
not repudiate the main outlines of the world-view of his time, composed of
Heaven and Earth, the divine creative pair, half physical and half
more-than-physical, ruled over by the supreme Shang Ti. Reserved as he was
about the supernatural, he was not without it; somewhere in the universe
there was a power that was on the side of right.
Impact on China
In his book The
Next Million Years, Charles Galton Darwin notes that anyone who wishes to
make a sizable impact on human history has the choice of three levels at
which to work. The agent may choose direct political action, or create a
creed, or attempt to change the genetic composition of the human species.
“That is why,” Darwin concludes, “a creed gives the best practical hope
that man can have for really controlling his future fate.” 30 History
affords no clearer support for this contention than the work of Confucius.
The Chinese Empire lasted under a succession of dynasties for over two
thousand years, a stretch of time that makes the empires of Alexander,
Caesar, and Napoleon look ephemeral. If we multiply the number of years
that empire lasted by the number of people it embraced in an average year,
it emerges quantitatively as the most impressive social institution human
beings have devised.
What we shall do is take note of some features of the Chinese character
that Confucius and his disciples reinforced where they did not originate
them. The features we shall mention pretty much blanket East Asia as a
whole, for Japan, Korea, and much of Southeast Asia deliberately imported
the Confucian ethic. We can begin with East Asia’s emphatic social
emphasis, which Confucius helped to fix in place.
Directly related to the subject of this book is the way, unique among the
world’s civilizations, that China syncretized her religions. In India and
the West religions are exclusive, if not competitive— it makes no sense to
think of someone as being simultaneously a Christian, a Muslim, and a Jew,
or even a Buddhist and a Hindu simultaneously. China arranged things
differently. Traditionally, every Chinese was Confucian in ethics and
public life, Taoist in private life and hygiene, and Buddhist at the time
of death, with a healthy dash of shamanistic folk religion thrown in along
the way. As someone has put the point: Every Chinese wears a Confucian
hat, Taoist robes, and Buddhist sandals. In Japan Shinto was added to the