Who was Confucius?


Confucius (c. 551 – 479 BCE) was a Chinese philosopher, founder of Confucianism, and a teacher of much influence living in the Spring and Autumn era of Chinese history (771 to 476 BCE). Confucius proved influential not only in China which adopted his ethical and educational teachings but in many other Asian nations including Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and more.

Confucius was born in a vassal state of the Zhou Dynasty (r. 1122-256 BCE) called Lu. His father died when he was just a toddler and he lived his youth years in poverty. Confucius married Qiguan at the age of nineteen and had three children with her.

Confucius had to learn the Six Arts, namely skills such as rites, music, archery, charioteering, calligraphy, and mathematics that students were required to master under the Zhou. The knowledge Confucius acquired and the skills he developed later assisted him in his teaching career.

In his twenties he found work in governmental posts managing stables and keeping books for granaries. Later, before his exile, Confucius worked his way through several governmental posts including becoming a magistrate, an assistant minister, and a minister of justice. It was while in exile that Confucius did most of his teaching in the context of enormous social changes as China transitioned from a slave to a feudal society. This transition gave many the impression that the ethics and morality of China were in decline, especially as rival states weakened the authority of the long-standing Zhou. Confucius, active during this tumultuous time, hoped to reinforce the important societal values of compassion and integrity that he believed were deteriorating.

Historical Sources

There are three major sources on the life of Confucius: the Analects, a text authored by the Confucian philosopher Mencius (fourth century BCE), and the massive Shiji (or Records of the Grand Historian) of Chinese historian Sima Qian (145-86 BCE).

Perhaps most important is the Analects, which is a work consisting of sayings and biographical fragments recorded and collected by Confucius’s disciples at a later date. According to this text, Confucius tells us of the experience he gained during his lifetime: “From the age of fifteen on, I have been intent upon learning; from thirty on, I have established myself; from forty on, I have not been confused; from fifty on, I have known the mandate of Heaven; from sixty on, my ear has been attuned; from seventy on, I have followed my heart’s desire without transgressing what is right” (2.4).

Composed during the Warring States period (475 to 221 BCE), Analects is removed from Confucius’ life by quite a margin but is still a source that most scholars believe contains some reliable historical information that can be reasonably attributed to the historical Confucius. Analects is not the only source as additional texts, hagiographical and other, penned during the Qin (r. 221-206 BCE) and Han (r. 206 BCE – 220 CE) periods speak of the philosopher. Mencius (372-289 BCE), a devout follower of Confucius and an important source for Confucianism as a philosophical system, is a century removed but likely close enough to the time of the historical Confucius for him to have had access to reliable information.

Sima Qian, writing at least four centuries later, likely had to use unreliable source material for his account. Nonetheless, from the Analects, Mencius, and the Qian, historians have sketched a portrait of the historical Confucius. Each source presents him in a different light by emphasizing certain areas. Analects concerns itself primarily with Confucius’ teachings on morality and the urge for people to behave morally in the face of hardship. Mencius weighs more on the politics of Confucius by presenting him as a politically motivated figure. Qian’s biography mostly relied on stories within these sources as well as legends surrounding Confucius.

Religious Beliefs

Concerning the divine, Confucius had his religious views, including theistic ones, although he is mostly silent on the subject. This seems to give Confucianism a more philosophical or humanistic bent than a religious one.

Confucius’ religious views were, however, shaped by traditions stemming back to the earlier Zhou Dynasty. The Zhou had a concept of deity called Tian, which they saw as synonymous with the all-powerful deity, Shangdi, of the Shang tribal rulers who ruled previously. The Zhou saw the decline of Shang and the rise of themselves as a consequence of a change in Tianming (“the Mandate of Heaven”), which suggests that theistic justifications for conquest and rulership were present very early in China’s history.

Confucius was active when there was a change in belief concerning Tian occurring during the collapse of Zhou rule. But despite this collapse, the beliefs concerning local spirits, ancestors, and divinities survived, and this reflected in Confucius’ own teachings where he upheld sacrifices to gods and ghosts as consistent with transmitting tradition. Confucius’ views of Tian, moreover, suggest one of inner conflict and confusion. In some instances, Confucius deeply felt that he had Tian’s personal approval, protection, and sanction regarding his work of moral instruction and reform. Elsewhere, however, Confucius appeared distraught as if facing an existential crisis, possibly fearing that Tian was unsupportive of his efforts. Importantly, Confucius did not believe that moral precepts were limited to elites and derived from heaven, but rather existed in human beings and therefore could be cultivated.

Beliefs on Order

The theme of harmonious order, which consisted of a threefold order of the moral, aesthetic, and social, is evident within Confucius’ teachings. Confucius hoped to sustain this order and thought that factors including guest-host etiquette and the performance of court ritual served to both regulate and maintain it. For instance, he associated the aesthetic with Zhou literature and the conventions of elitist good taste.

The moral order concerned good manners, compassion, and one’s concern for others. The third of the threefold order, the social, emphasized the performing of rituals in the proper way and that performing them correctly should demonstrate the ideal hierarchies of power between the parties involved. By sustaining this order, Confucius believed that society would function better and that the people would know what is morally good and put that into practice voluntarily.

Confucius further emphasized respect for others in his five constant relationships. These five relationships are between sovereigns and their subjects, in which rulers should be benevolent and subjects loyal; between father and son, in which the father is to be loving and the children obedient; between husband and wife, in which husbands are to be fair and good, and wives understanding; between brother and brother, in which older siblings are to be gently and younger siblings respectful; and between friend and friend, in which older friends are to be considerate and younger friends reverential. In all of these, reciprocity is defined as a cardinal virtue and the relationships are to embody the “golden rule”. Referring to Confucius’ perception of rulers, historian of religion Ninian Smart explains that,

“He saw that good rule should occur not by force but by moral suasion: and for this reason he paid a lot of attention to rites and ceremonies, since he perceived in them the characteristic way of inculcating right behavior and loyal service. He pondered the meaning of tradition, and though a reformer, he was also highly committed to older ways. He had a vision of the past, refined and redefined, as playing a vital role in shaping the nonviolent means whereby the good ruler maintains his power” (1)

On Education

Education and character-building constitute major themes in Confucius’ teachings and are perhaps what he is best remembered for. Confucius wished to make education widely accessible for the people and not an exclusive privilege available for only a few elitists and privileged persons.

Education was a privilege at the time because wealthier Chinese families could hire tutors to educate their sons in specific arts that would benefit them ahead of others in life. Confucius wanted to change this by making education open and available to all. He believed that through learning it was possible not only to improve society but also for a person to embark on a journey of self-improvement and character building. Part of character building required personal integrity and self-discipline which, to Confucius, would help produce compassion and humility in people when dealing with others. Confucius believed that self-improvement was a lifelong process that began during a person’s teen years and extended well into old age.

Myths and Influence

During Han Dynasty (r. 202 BCE-220 CE), two to three centuries after Confucius’ life, a number of hagiographical accounts of his deeds were produced, some of which present him as a superhuman figure and destined ruler. Others refer to special markings on his body indicating his exemplary status. Confucius became viewed as a deity and a cult organized itself around his worship.

Confucius’ reputation flourished as his circle of students grew. His disciples, young men wishing to succeed in public life, were particularly instrumental in the development and formation of Confucianism. According to tradition, Confucius had taught over 3000 students in his time and about seventy of them were considered outstanding. He spent the last few years of his life (he died in his seventies) teaching. By the later part of the second century BCE, five ancient texts associated with Confucius (“Five Classics”) were established as the basis for imperial civil service examinations under Han rulership. Confucianism essentially became the official imperial philosophy embraced by the Han until its end in 220 CE. Also during this time were other important philosophies and beliefs, notably Buddhism and Daoism, began competing with Confucianism for the attention of the elite. That was until the Tang Dynasty (r. 618-907 CE) restored Confucianism as the Chinese cultural and political base.

Additionally, hagiographical accounts turned Confucius into a cultural hero among the Chinese masses. For example, under the Song Dynasty (r. 969-1279 CE) the study of the Analects as one of “Four Books” was institutionalized and required for imperial civil service examinations. Many people continued to memorize this text and the various orthodox commentaries on it until the early twentieth century CE. Confucianism again lost influence when the last Chinese imperial government, the Qing Dynasty, fell in 1911. The communist government of China would later allocate resources to the reconstruction and restoration of old imperial temples to Confucius across the country and also erected new statues of Confucius in areas commonly visited by tourists.


1. Smart, Ninian. 1998. The World’s Religions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 112.

Ambalu, Shulamit., et al. 2013. The Religions Book. London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd. p. 72-77



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