Confucius: A Life of Thought and Politics

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For more than two thousand years, Confucius (551–479 B.C.) has been a fundamental part of China's history. His influence as a moral thinker remains powerful to this day. Yet despite his fame and the perennial interest in his life and teachings, Confucius the man has been elusive, and no definitive biography has emerged. In this book, the scholar and writer Annping Chin negotiates centuries of reconstructions, guess-work, and numerous Chinese texts in order to establish an absorbing and original account of the thinker's life and legacy. She shows with new insight how Confucius lived and thought, his habits and inclinations, his relation to his contemporaries, his work as a teacher and as a counsellor, his worries about the world and the generations to come.

Chin brings the historical Confucius within reach so that he can lead us into his idea of the moral and explain his timeless teachings on family and politics, culture and learning. Confucius is the culmination of years of research, a book that makes an important and fascinating contribution to biography and Chinese history.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300151183
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 5/26/2009
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 547,773
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Ann-Ping Chin received her Ph.D. in Chinese Thought from Columbia University. Formerly on the faculty at Wesleyan University, she now teaches in the history department at Yale. She is the author of four previous books.

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Read an Excerpt


A Life of Thought and Politics


Copyright © 2008 Annping Chin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-15118-3

Chapter One

Leaving Home

At the height of his political career, Confucius suddenly resigned from office and took to the road with no prospects and very little cash. The year was 497 BC. He was fifty-four, holding the position of minister of crime in his home state of Lu when this happened. The move essentially ended his public career, but he could not have known it then.

Confucius had always wanted a place near the top, though not for the usual reasons. He was not seeking fresh emolument or an extra charge of power. His ambitions were for a noble end, but to achieve them he needed more political leverage. The minister of crime was only a middle-level official. The position allowed him an occasional audience with the feudal lord, and he would go to him when called upon. His immediate supervisor, however, was the chief counselor. He saw this man more often, and it was through his relationship with the chief counselor that he would gauge where he stood in the eyes of his ruler and whether he mattered in the affairs of the state. In 497 BC, Duke Ding was the ruler of Lu, Jihuanzi was his chief counselor, and Confucius reported directly to Jihuanzi.

No one can say for sure why Confuciusgave up his job that year. It had taken him a long time to get where he was, working his way up from keeper of granaries and livestock in Jihuanzi's clan to district officer, then to minister of works, and finally to minister of crime. Salaried positions were not uncommon during this period of Chinese history, but the more coveted offices were given to aristocrats living on hereditary emoluments. Confucius himself was on the edge of being aristocratic, but his provenance could not quite admit him to this privileged group. According to some reports, his early ancestors were the Kongs from the state of Song, a titled family that produced several eminent counselors for Song. But in the mid-seventh century BC, political rivals dealt the family a hard blow, after which the Kongs could no longer hold their heads high. Consequently, several members of the family moved to Lu. Among them was Confucius' great-grandfather. By the time Confucius was born, the Kongs had long adopted Lu as their home, but they had lost altogether their hereditary titles and the privileges their ancestors had enjoyed in Song. They were now common gentlemen (shi), just a grade above the common folk.

There were many such men in the Spring and Autumn period-marginal people with the pride of the elite and an education in the six arts of ritual, music, archery, charioteering, writing, and mathematics. These men knew that they were from superior stock, but with the decline of their family fortune, all they were allowed was an education, and all they could rely on for employment and an income was the knowledge and skills they had acquired; and so they lived with an uneasy feeling that if they did not apply themselves fully in any or all of the six arts, they could fall below the margin. The common gentlemen from Confucius' time were diligent and flexible; they could be warriors or bureaucrats. Confucius' own father, Shu-liang He, was a soldier and a district steward in Lu.

When Confucius was conceived in 552 or 551 BC, Shu-liang He was already an old man, with nine daughters by a principal wife and a clubfooted son by a concubine. Still, he managed to persuade the head of the Yan family to let his daughter-a girl in her teens-have a child with him. The early Chinese historian Sima Qian writes, "[Shu-liang] He and the girl from the Yan family made love in the fields and conceived Confucius." No early accounts explained why the couple "made love in the fields (yehe)." One would assume that before approaching the Yan family, Shu-liang He had ended his first marriage because that wife failed to produce a male heir, and that he had driven away his concubine because she gave him an imperfect son. If the Yan girl was indeed his legitimate wife, why did the nuptials take place under such unnatural circumstances? Was their relationship perceived as being in some way illicit? After their union in the wilds, adds Sima Qian:

The couple prayed at Mount Ni, and she gave birth to Confucius. Confucius was born in the twenty-second year of Duke Xiang of Lu with a concavity in the top of his head, like a roof with turned-up eaves. [And since his parents prayed at Mount Ni (Ni Qiu),] he was given the personal name of Qiu and the courtesy name of Zhongni. His family name was Kong.

Confucius was only three when his father died. Mother and son had a hard time scraping by, and she died when he was still a young man. He married a woman from the Binguan family when he was eighteen. His wife soon bore him a son, and sometime later a daughter.

Confucius was unusually tall. Some claimed that he "grew to a height of well over six feet." The pumped-up figure could mean that he was seen as bigger than life. Confucius himself, however, never tried to inflate his image or his abilities. He readily told others that he "was skilled in many menial things." He did not think that a gentleman need be so proficient in menial tasks, but he had no choice, he said, for he "was poor and from a lowly station" and could not enter government service as easily as young men of prominent families could, and so "could not prove himself in office" just because he felt he was ready. Thus he went forth unto his work and labor with patience, and he moved upward gradually from keeping accounts and looking after livestock to positions of relative importance in the state bureaucracy.

By the time he became the minister of crime, Confucius also had a following that included men like Zigong, Yan Hui, and Zilu. Most of these men had few resources to begin with. Even when they were from well-to-do families, if they were not the eldest sons they would have received only a trifle of the inheritance after their fathers died, certainly not enough to live on. Thus by becoming apprentices to a gentleman and by pursuing the learning of a gentleman, they hoped to stand on their own one day, with a gentleman's disposition and profession. In the meantime, they relied on their teacher for material support and contacts to help them get started on a political career. Disciples of Confucius believed that he could make them into what he had become. And like apprentices in a trade, they would spend years at their master's side, emulating him and caring for him as if he were their own father. They chose to be attached to him, and he, the teacher, was, in small ways, a lord unto himself. Thus when Confucius decided to leave Lu in 497, he was not only giving up his job, he was running the risk of losing all his followers.

The Analects, which is the oldest record we have about Confucius, mentions only once the matter of his surprise departure:

The men of Qi made a present of singing and dancing girls. Jihuanzi accepted the girls and did not go to court for the next three days. Confucius left.

Confucius' fourth-generation disciple, Mencius, offers another explanation:

Confucius was the minister of crime in the state of Lu, but [the ruler] did not adopt his measures or make use of his talents. Still, Confucius took part in an official sacrifice. Afterwards, he was not given a portion of the meat from the sacrificial animal. So he left right away and did not even have time to take off his ceremonial cap.

Mencius then adds:

Those who did not understand him thought that Confucius was begrudging about not getting a share of the meat. But those who understood him knew that he had to go because [the ruling elite of] Lu had acted contrary to the rites.

Four centuries later, the Han dynasty historian Sima Qian put the two accounts together, filled in a few titillating details, tidied up the inconsistencies, and produced a more complete story. According to this version, Confucius in 497 was so successful in his administration that "vendors of lamb and pork stopped charging inflated prices, men and women walked on different sides of the street, no one picked up things left on the road, and outsiders coming to the city did not have to look for officers to help them get settled because everyone made them feel at home." The counselors from the neighboring state of Qi watched this development with growing concern. They feared that with Confucius in charge of government, the ruler of Lu might very well "become the next hegemon," which meant that their country would be swallowed up first, since it was nearest to Lu. To stop that from happening, the men of Qi decided to thwart Confucius' effort:

They chose eighty pretty girls in Qi, dressed them in gorgeous clothes, had them instructed in the dance to the Kanglo music, and sent them with sixty pairs of dappled horses as a gift to the Duke of Lu. The dancers were in plain sight with the horses outside of Gao Gate in the south city. Jihuanzi, who went in disguise several times to have a look, was tempted to accept the presents. He persuaded Duke Ding to have a stroll with him on the high road so that they could take a peek at the dancers. They lingered all day, watching the girls, and so neglected state affairs.

At this point, Sima Qian tells us, Confucius' follower Zilu urged his teacher to quit his job and go elsewhere. Confucius, however, was reluctant, wanting to give the ruler and his chief counselor another chance. He said to Zilu: "There will be a sacrifice today in the outskirts of the city. If our ruler shares portions of the sacrificial meat with the court officers, then I will stay." The episode concludes with "no meat being offered to the officers" and Confucius leaving Lu a disappointed man.

Despite the unhappy ending, this is an optimistic story; in fact, it is too upbeat to be credible. The author wants us to believe that when given the authority to fulfill his position, Confucius was able to accomplish impressive feats. Thus, he says, when the office of the minister of crime was at his disposal, within three months Confucius was able to create civil orderliness and social harmony in a world where transgressions had been rampant for so long that people were beginning to accept dishonesty and discordance as the norm. Sima Qian must have exaggerated or made things up, which is understandable because he was writing at a time when China was unified after many centuries of political division and Confucius' teachings had proved to be particularly useful to the theorists and stewards of the new order. Though fiercely independent, Sima Qian could not be completely free from the influence of a Confucian point of view. So, like most of his contemporaries, he rooted for Confucius and projected his expectations onto the biography he wrote of this man.

Mencius was less sanguine. He was Confucius' most important heir, yet he writes that when Confucius was the minister of crime, the ruler did not make use of his talents. Since Mencius was also a second-generation disciple of Confucius' grandson, he must have been better informed than Sima Qian. He also tells us that Confucius was waiting for an excuse to leave Lu, so when there was "a minor breech" of the rites, he made himself scarce. This explanation seems to edge closer to the truth regarding Confucius' behavior in 497, yet Mencius is still hiding something. Why, for instance, did Confucius leave in such a hurry? If all along he knew that he had to go because his ruler never thought of him or his plans as significant, why did he not prepare himself for the impending moment? As for the dancers from Qi, they may be part of another story.

The interplay among these three early sources and their apparent contradictions perfectly introduce the conundrum of how to bring order and meaning to our understanding of Confucius' life. One might start with the Spring and Autumn Annals, the chronicle from Confucius' home state of Lu. But since the structure of the annals is skeletal and the entries are minimal, one has to use this source together with the Zuo Commentary to comprehend anything about the goings-on during the Spring and Autumn period. And this commentary says that in 498 BC, the year before Confucius' departure, an internal uprising nearly brought Lu to destruction. For a while it appeared that the rebels were about to eliminate their ruler along with the men who headed the three hereditary families, men who were not only the chief ministers of the governing council but also the ruler's closest relatives. Had the rebels been successful in the confrontation and had they gone on to crown themselves, this would have formally terminated Lu's feudal tie with the Zhou king. In other words, Lu would no longer have been a feudal state of the Zhou kingdom, and the history of Lu would have had to begin a new chapter. However, things did not end up that way. According to the Zuo Commentary, Confucius played a crucial role in these events, and he did so, in fact, long before the rebellion had materialized. We find that the Analects is able to corroborate much of this story.

The very schematic Spring and Autumn Annals, to which the Zuo Commentary is attached, has eleven entries for the year 498. Three out of the eleven deal with affairs in other states-the death and funeral of a feudal lord; the military exploits of one state against another. One mentions a rain-praying ceremony in the fall; another, a solar eclipse in the eleventh month. The remaining entries allude to the malignity and the violence in Lu that year: first, the head of the Shusun family led an army and demolished a city that for generations had been the family's stronghold; then, shortly afterwards, the head of the Jisun family-the chief counselor Jihuanzi-tried to do the same to his city.

The Zuo Commentary explains that Confucius' disciple Zilu was a retainer in the Jisun clan, and that it was Zilu who encouraged the hereditary families to destroy their cities, telling them that it would be better to make a fresh start than to let the rebels gain control of their bases. Following Zilu's advice, the Shusuns razed their original home city, and the Jisuns were just about to do the same to their home city in Bi when one of their retainers, Gongshan Buniu, "took command of the men of Bi and sprang a surprise attack on the capital of Lu." In desperation, the commentary continues, "the duke and the heads of the three families entered the Jisun palace grounds and climbed the Wuzi Terrace." The rebels tried "but could not take them." "Arrows grazed past the ruler" while he waited for his fate. At this point, Confucius, in his capacity as the minister of crime, ordered two state officers to lead an assault against the insurgent band. "The men of Bi fled north. The government troops pursued them and crushed them in Gu. The two rebel leaders ran for the state of Qi. Immediately after, the Jisun clan destroyed their stronghold at Bi." The third family, the Mengsuns, however, had a change of heart. When it was their turn to dismantle their base, the chief retainer persuaded the head of the family not to do it. "The city of Cheng is the Mengsuns' security," the man said. "Without it, there won't be any Mengsuns." At the end of 498, the ruler sent an army to finish up what the Mengsun family could not carry out themselves, but the expedition failed.

Sources a century or two later than the Zuo Commentary contend that it was Confucius, not his follower Zilu, who was behind the plan to uproot the Three Families. One says:

When Confucius was in the service of the Jisun clan, after he had been compliant for three months, he told them that a private home should not have a stockpile of weapons; that a district city should not have walls one hundred zhi in length. Thereupon he led a military division and destroyed, first, the city of Hou and then the city of Bi.

Another story went so far as to give Confucius the credit for "restoring the office of the duke and dealing a serious blow to the private families." But records in the Zuo Commentary, which is the more reliable source, imply that the disruption of 498 neither strengthened the ruler of Lu nor significantly weakened the Three Families. The commentary makes no grand claim for Confucius. Yet by stating that Zilu was the one who instigated the destruction of the cities, it implicates Zilu's teacher. In the Analects, Confucius had more than once indicated that Zilu was the disciple who would do anything for him and also the disciple who most needed his approval. This, however, did not endear Zilu to him. One time, in a moment of moral anguish, Confucius declaimed: "If I cannot practice a proper way here, in this world, then I shall take to the open sea and drift around on a bamboo raft. The person who will follow me would be Zilu." We are told that Zilu was overjoyed when he heard these words, ready to have his loyalty and fortitude put to the test, not realizing that his teacher made the remark for rhetorical effect. Confucius was cool and sarcastic in response. He said, "Zilu loves courage more than I but is too blunt to understand anything subtle."


Excerpted from CONFUCIUS by ANNPING CHIN Copyright © 2008 by Annping Chin. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Chinese Dynasties....................xiii
1. Leaving Home....................23
2. Families and Politics....................41
3. Companions....................63
4. Wanderings....................85
5. Return....................119
6. Teaching....................142
7. The Rites of Life and Death....................172
8. Defenders....................192
A Note on the Sources....................251
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