Confucius: A Brief History of Master Kong

Today I am writing about a long overdue historical figure that I have admired for a long time: Confucius. The name itself is actually the latinisation of the title he was known by Kǒng Fūzǐ (which means something like Master Kong – Kong was his family name). His given name was Qiu. However, the Jesuit priests that got to China during the 16th century adapted it to their ears and languages, like it often happens with so many Asian names in Western culture.

I could write loads about him, but I will try to keep it to a brief overview, where I am mostly using the work of Michael Schuman as a reference. According to his research, there I a possibility that the great master may have been an illegitimate child. Confucius’s father, Kong He, die when the child was barely a couple of years old. Kong He was a lot older than Confucius mother, Yan Zhengzai, who was only a teenager at the time of the child’s birth on the 28th of September 551 BC. Schuman is of the idea that Zhengzai was shunned by the Kong family which is why Confucius was raised essentially in poverty. According to Burton Watson, it is evident from Confucius writing in his Analects that this experience of living a life of struggle and misery is what gave him a particular understanding and viewpoint of wealth and class. The child, perhaps guided by a higher purpose, or in an attempt to restore his family’s honour and glory, dedicated himself to the relentless study of history, literature ad philosophy.

A little context is needed here to understand the strive and goal Confucius set for himself as he was growing up. The 6th century BC in Chinese history is dominated by the existence of petty kingdoms and fiefdoms. Master Kong was a subject to the ones powerful Zhou of western China, that since 771BC had struggled to impose their authority after a failed attempt to keep their borders safe against non-Chinese invaders and raiders. According to Watson, this forces the Zhou to leave their capital in the west and consolidate their power in the east around the area of Luoyang, starting a new period in their history known as Eastern Zhou, which lasted until roughly 256BC. Because of this, the real power of China, and the Zhou in particular, resided in large state holders and feudal lords, like Confucius father (even if he was only a lesser noble he still was part of this socio-political system), which unfortunately meant a lot of intrigues, trifles and instability. Schuman says this is why Confucius wanted to encourage rulers of his time to put down their weapons and rule with benevolence, one of the most precious doctrines of Confucianism. He truly believed if everyone tried to behave and do their best society could only prosper.

Because of this, Confucius dedicated all his efforts to obtain an office at the government so that he could one day become a top adviser for the mighty rulers of his country. However, there were many bumps in the road for his success, which account to Michael Burgan were a combination of several factors. First of all in order to hold an office, you normally had to come from an established noble family (which was already something against him). Confucius morals of right and wrong which he adhered to without hesitation were something he expected everyone else to follow, often clashing and even leading him to oppose openly the actions of those of higher rank than him (not a great prospect for a political career back in Ancient China as it is today…something never change). But things eventually fell into place. Master Kong started as the farm manager of an influential family of Lu, where his skills brought him to the attention of the government officials. His hard work finally paid off and he reached the position of Minister of Justice or Crime depending on the source, in his local area of Lu. By this time, Confucius wisdom has also cultivated him a reputation as a venerable teacher and he had started to amass a small following of students to whom he imparted the knowledge he had acquired from reading ancient texts and his life experiences. And, this was probably for the best because, due to a twisted turn of fate, and despite all his efforts, Confucius’s political career was simply not meant to be. Following several quibbles (more than I have the space to explain here), in 497BC, he leaves Lu with some of his students.

 The exact reason or how this happens is still very much open to interpretation. Schuman says that he fell out of favour with the leaders of Lu. Watson says that, in fact, according to the Analects, it is hard to say whether Confucius actually held any significant position of power in Lu at all to begin with and frustrated or disheartened with the lack of interest for the lord he decided to leave. In other sources, such as the Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian) Master Kong sent himself into exile after becoming extremely disappointed at the behaviour of his master (in this instance, the Shiji suggests Confucius was in fact becoming quite influential and neighbouring states were concern of how much better Lu was doing with him as a minister). The “wrongful” behaviour by the lord of Lu seems a political ploy instigated by the neighbouring Qi supposedly aimed to bother Confucius and cause tension. If the Shiji is correct, the Qi were successful, and this is was leads Master Kong to gather his students and seek better fortunes elsewhere. Confucius spends 13 years spreading his teachings which could be summarised as follows: benevolence as previously mentioned, leadership, filial piety, good government, justice, reciprocity, self-cultivation, and learning. During this time of “exile” or otherwise sagely wandering across China, not only did he acquire an even larger following, but it is believed he was himself looking for a ruler worthy of his values to employ him.

Yet, much to his dismay once again, no offers came, and no one seemed worthy. Fate would have it that the lord of Lu (sometimes one of the ministers instead, according to the Zuozhuan) eventually invites Confucius back to the court, where once again it is dubious whether he actually had a job or if he acted more as an ad-hoc consultant or adviser. What seems clear is that at this moment of his life, already in his 60s he was mostly devoted to the teaching of his disciples and focused on study. It is believed that he had thousands of students, most of which came from Lu, however he did accept anyone from any social and political background and anywhere from the other states. He did not charge or turned anyone away. Despite his political failure which seemed terribly heavy in his heart, his teaching was incredibly successful, even beyond his years. Crucial to the development of China and most of Asian history, centuries later, Confucianism was the essential ideology of the Han Dynasty (206BC to 220AD) and still holds great following across the continent and beyond.

What became of Master Kong? He died a couple of years after his 70th birthday, some say by illness, some say by natural causes, others suggest it was because of grief and old age. He was buried t what now is known as the Kong Lin Cemetery at Qufu, his hometown, where several others of his followers also rest in peace with their master.

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