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Confucius: A Throneless King

Confucius: A Throneless King

by Meher McArthur

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Confucius is one of the most important figures in Chinese history,
whose philosophies have shaped world culture. Often overlooked outside his native country, Confucius himself was a fascinating figure. A contemporary of Buddha, Confucius was outspoken and uncompromising man who revolutionized Chinese society nearly 2,500 years ago, when the country was merely a


Confucius is one of the most important figures in Chinese history,
whose philosophies have shaped world culture. Often overlooked outside his native country, Confucius himself was a fascinating figure. A contemporary of Buddha, Confucius was outspoken and uncompromising man who revolutionized Chinese society nearly 2,500 years ago, when the country was merely a loose web of feudal provinces. No small feat for the illegitimate son of a retired soldier and a teenage concubine, who once received a prophecy from the local fortune-teller that she would give birth to a “throneless king.”

Perhaps because of these humble beginnings, Confucius had a passionate belief in respect for others and this belief underpinned his life and teachings. He advised the emperors and kings of his day, gaining their respect and undying enmity along the way. he was equally proud of both achievements, saying that if the evil people of the world liked him, he was doing something wrong.
Confucius established many ideas that are taken for granted today, from respecting one‘s parents to the Golden Rule, to virtue being its own reward. his theories became the foundation of one of the world‘s first civil services and established social structures throughout Asia that still exist today.

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A Throneless King

By Meher McArthur


Copyright © 2011 Meher McArthur
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-4931-4


The Bitter Gourd That Is Not Eaten

Almost exactly 2,500 years ago, an elderly teacher and a handful of his most devoted students were stranded in the wilds of China's Henan province, wondering when and where they would find their next meal. Cut off from civilisation by hostile feudal lords, the group had not eaten for a week and their hunger was testing the limits of their mental and physical strength.

For several years now, the Master and his students had been travelling together from state to state, stopping when the Master found employment with a lord or duke and then setting off again when he left the job, usually after he realised that his employer was morally weak, or when fellow government officials sought his dismissal. The Master was now in his late fifties and his inability to find a virtuous ruler to whom he could offer his moral guidance and political advice caused him much frustration and sadness. For his entire life he had studied the wisdom of the ancients, carefully considered their words and ideas and developed a philosophy which, if followed by people at all levels of society, from ruler to subject and from father to son, was guaranteed to restore peace, harmony and happiness to the world. What ruler, he wondered, would not want this to be his legacy?

None during his lifetime, it seemed. Whenever the Master had been assigned a government position he met with resistance from his various employers, none of whom had been prepared to make sacrifices in their lives in order to become a truly benevolent ruler. Rarely was a sovereign willing to give up his life of luxury in order to reduce the burden of taxes upon the poor peasants who worked the land. Many kings were more concerned with expanding their territories than with ensuring their own subjects were fed and clothed. And when the downtrodden people became restless, most rulers simply laid down laws to keep them in their place and prevent them from challenging the regime. What made matters worse was that however hard the people worked, there was no way for any of them to elevate themselves into a position in government in order to bring about change. Power was hereditary, not based on merit, morality or hard work, and those who had influence in all the states where the Master had been employed were less interested in cultivating their characters and helping others than in enhancing their own status. Not surprisingly, they had little time for his ideas and suggestions, and instead had plotted against him, forcing him to give up his post and search for work elsewhere.

With these people ruling the states, no wonder the world was in chaos. If only a virtuous ruler like the early kings of Zhou were alive today, the Master thought. Such leaders were not only virtuous themselves, but sought and encouraged virtue in others and surrounded themselves with virtuous advisers. With someone like them as his employer, he would have been able to put his ideas to the test, advising his lord to feed the poor, to hire the hard-working and accomplished and even to follow the sacred ceremonies performed to honour his ancestors – something that most rulers today also tended to neglect. His lord would surely restore peace and stability to his kingdom, and soon his example would be followed by other leaders until the world became peaceful and harmonious again.

But, alas, such a ruler was nowhere to be found, and the Master was beginning to realise that he could die without ever seeing his teachings applied in government. This thought had occurred to him for the first time a year or so earlier, when it looked as if the Duke of Wei might hire him as his counsellor. Though the Duke had shown him great courtesy and hospitality, he had not actually offered him a post. This was not the first time he had been overlooked in this manner. He lamented to his students that he was like a bitter gourd that is hung but not eaten, a man ripe with ideas that no one wanted to taste. Yet the Great Teacher, convinced of the truth of his teachings, refused to give up his mission to share them with a noble leader who could use them well.

His students, though also sad and bewildered that those in power did not value the advice of their Teacher, respected his decision to heed his inner voice and abandon his posts. They happily followed him in his wanderings, spurred on by a desire to absorb his goodness and become better men themselves, perhaps even junzi, or gentlemen. It was surely his virtue and the power of his teachings, they imagined, that had protected him when his life had been threatened – on two occasions. The first was a few years earlier when, in the state of Chen, he had been mistaken for the bandit Yang Hu and imprisoned for several days until his captors realised their mistake and released him. The second was when the evil commander of the cavalry of the state of Song had tried to kill him by felling a tree where he was standing. Miraculously, the Master had escaped unscathed, and had proclaimed that this was a sign that he was destined to complete his mission.

Over the years the students had become accustomed to their peripatetic life, during which time their Master had shared with them so many of his thoughts on compassion, loyalty, power and the importance of study. Inspired by his wisdom and amazed by his resilience, they were convinced that one day his teachings would prevail. However, now that they found themselves stranded out in the forest with no sign of help, the fear that they all might starve to death far from civilisation was starting to turn devotion into despair. Zilu, one of the most passionate of all the pupils, could not understand why his Master remained calm and serene when they could all die of starvation. Why wasn't his Master upset by their current situation? He cried out at him in anger, 'Is it right that a gentleman should be reduced to such dire straits?'

The Master responded, 'The wise man may indeed find himself in distressing circumstances. But in such a situation, only an ordinary man is thrown off balance.'

Zilu was embarrassed by his outburst since it demonstrated that he still had much to learn from his teacher.

His Master immediately saw an opportunity to turn an awkward moment into a lesson for his students and drew, as he often did, on the words of the ancients. He asked Zilu, 'The Shujing says: "We are not tigers or rhinoceroses that we should remain in desert places." So why am I in such a position?'

Zilu replied, 'In my opinion, it is because our goodness is not sufficient to cause men to believe us; it is because our wisdom is not sufficient that men do not follow our precepts.'

His Master shook his head and then went on to give Zilu examples of several great heroes from ancient times who had met with bitter ends, despite their goodness and wisdom. He then asked the student Zigong the same question. His reply was, 'Your wisdom is so great that there is no one in the empire who will accept you. Master, you should lower the level of your teachings a little.'

To this the Master countered, 'A good farmer sows, but is not sure that he will reap. A skilful artisan is not sure that he will please. The gentleman puts wisdom into practice and upholds basic rules and principles, but has no assurance that he will win acceptance. If you say that in order to gain acceptance, one must not practise wisdom, your aspirations are not very high.'

Then the Master posed the original question to his favourite student, Yan Hui, who responded, 'Your wisdom is most lofty; that is why there is no one in the empire who will accept it. However, if we do not practise wisdom, we should be ashamed, and when, having practised it, we are not employed, it is the lords who should be ashamed.'

The Master was delighted with this last answer and joked with Yan Hui, 'If you were a rich man, I would like to be your overseer!' By this, he was probably suggesting that Yan Hui not only understood the importance of virtue but also possessed it himself, so that if he were to own riches too, he would be just the sort of benevolent ruler the Master would like to serve.

This type of exchange was the reason the students remained with their Master, even though they risked losing their lives. Despite any fear that the Master might be experiencing, he was able to share with them a profoundly important lesson and even colour it with a touch of humour and irony that made it all the more digestible. Despite his own sense of failure as a political adviser and the image of the bitter gourd that hovered in his mind, he could still believe in himself and his mission. And despite his compassion towards them in their shared dire predicament, he was not going to be soft on them now and allow them to forget that losing their integrity would be a far greater tragedy than losing their lives.

The Master was not destined to die in the wilds of Henan that year, nor were his students. He lived another fifteen years but, to his great regret, was never able to put his teachings into practice in government. Indeed, the image of the bitter gourd, hanging on a vine without ever being eaten, stayed with him until his death. However, his students made sure that his life's work was not in vain and passed on his teachings to their children and their students, gradually sweetening the gourd so that it was not only devoured hungrily by their rulers, but its seeds bore fruit that has been the philosophical and moral staple for millions of people in China and beyond for centuries.


China at the Time of Confucius

When Confucius lived (551–479 BC), there was no such country as China. The area that we now know as China, or Zhongguo (meaning 'central country') in Chinese, was a patchwork of states embroiled in conflict with each other for power and territory. Much of this vast area was unified under the Zhou dynasty during the first part of their reign, which is known as the Western Zhou period (1050–770 BC), because their capital was located in north-western China (near modern Xi'an in Shaanxi province); but by the eighth century BC the dynasty had lost all political and military might in the region. During the Eastern Zhou period (770–221 BC), when Confucius lived, the Zhou kings only held nominal control over a small domain centred on their new capital city, Luoyang, which was situated to the east in modern Henan province. There was no centralised government keeping peace and order in the region, and all around the capital a number of largely autonomous states ruled by feudal lords vied for supremacy with their neighbours, while also struggling to contain continuous political conflicts within their own borders.

This unstable political situation was not simply the backdrop for Confucius' life; it became his very reason for being. For many of his years, Confucius believed that he was on a Heavenly mission to restore harmony to the region and reunite it under the Zhou kings. He regarded the earlier Western Zhou period as a golden age, when the land was ruled by benevolent kings who were advised by wise and compassionate counsellors. Throughout his life he studied the government, history, rites and literature of the Western Zhou, shared this knowledge with his students, and hoped to use it one day to advise a noble ruler on how to create a harmonious state. For a professional role model he looked to the Duke of Zhou, the brother of King Wu, the first king of the Zhou dynasty. Nearly 600 years earlier the Duke had helped unify and pacify much of the region as a regent to King Wu's son, and then later became a respected political adviser to his nephew when he ascended the throne as King Cheng. Confucius believed passionately that if the rulers of his day followed the ways of the Western Zhou kings, and if they allowed him to advise them in the manner of the Duke of Zhou, then peace and prosperity could return.

When studying Confucius and his teachings, it would seem that he might have been a happier man and a more successful political adviser if he had lived in the 'golden age' of the Western Zhou. Then, he believed, virtuous rulers still existed and honourable advisers like him could find rewarding employment with them. Instead, Confucius lived during the Eastern Zhou period, a time of intense political and social turmoil, and he was never able to find a job with such a ruler, seemingly because there were so few of them. However, it was undoubtedly because of this turmoil, rather than in spite of it, that the Eastern Zhou dynasty became what is described as one of the most important periods of intellectual and philosophical activity in the history of China. The Western Zhou dynasty was an era of immense cultural growth, but it is generally agreed that it was under the Eastern Zhou dynasty that the intellectual and spiritual foundations of Chinese civilisation were laid. It was precisely because of the intense conflict in the region that Confucius and other philosophers of the Eastern Zhou age developed theories about social and political harmony. The chaos made their work necessary, and although the instability of the time made it hard for their theories to be put into practice during their lives, their teachings greatly contributed to the stability of later periods in Chinese history.

There are many parallels between political and philosophical developments in Eastern Zhou China and other parts of the world. In fact, this period is often referred to as the 'Chinese Axial Age' and considered part of the global Axial Age, a critical period in world history when some of our greatest spiritual and philosophical thinkers, including Socrates, Jeremiah and the Buddha, responded to the turmoil of their age by posing crucial questions about humanity and spirituality. As in Greece, Western Asia and India at roughly the same time (between 900 and 200 BC), China was increasingly torn apart by violence and warfare, and discussions about morality and justice became more common. With the world around them in chaos, philosophers and spiritual leaders were called upon to provide answers to life's great questions: What causes suffering? How can we achieve peace and harmony? What does it mean to be a virtuous person? What gives our lives meaning? Such questions weighed heavily on the philosophers and teachers of the Axial Age and drove them to develop their doctrines and share them with others. Confucius devoted his life to searching for the answers to such fundamental questions and passing them on to his followers.

The Western Zhou (1050–770 BC): ruling with a Heavenly Mandate

The Zhou dynasty began with great promise and, according to the Zhou rulers, with a Mandate from Heaven (tianming). The belief that a king and dynasty can only rule with Heaven's blessing has been one of the most important concepts in Chinese politics, and has provided the foundation for the establishment of many of China's great dynasties. The doctrine is traditionally believed to have been initiated by the Duke of Zhou, who proclaimed it to the people of the new Zhou Empire. The main principle of tianming is the notion that, as long as a king is virtuous and undertakes his sacred duties (including performing rituals to honour his ancestors), he will be able to retain his Heavenly Mandate and rule indefinitely. However, if he becomes corrupt or neglects these duties, he will lose Heaven's blessing, a loss that is manifested most clearly in natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods, and in violent uprisings among his people.

According to Zhou texts such as The Book of History, from which we glean much of our contemporary information about the period, the preceding Shang dynasty (1600–1046 BC) was in severe decline because their rulers were ineffective at best. The last Shang king, Shang Zhou, was one of the most corrupt and sadistic rulers in Chinese history, and he reputedly imposed high taxes on his people in order to pay for an extravagant lifestyle which included drunken and often violent orgies. Under such a dissolute ruler, unrest spread. The first Zhou kings considered themselves more than justified in supplanting the Shang – they believed that they were mandated by Heaven to do so. In 1050 BC, the Zhou army rose up and overthrew the Shang, succeeding them as rulers of the region. Although the Zhou conquerors employed the concept of the Heavenly Mandate in part to convince the subjects of the conquered Shang of the legitimacy of the new Zhou regime, they undoubtedly believed in their Heaven-appointed role, and the early Zhou rulers seem to have understood that with this blessing came great responsibility.


Excerpted from Confucius by Meher McArthur. Copyright © 2011 Meher McArthur. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Meher McArthur is an art historian and the former curator of East Asian Art at the Pacific Asian Museum in California. She is the author of Reading Buddist Art: An Illustrated Guide to Buddhist Signs and Symbols, The Arts of Asia: Materials, Techniques, Styles, and Confucius: A Throneless King. She lives in Pasadena, CA.

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