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Confucius, the Man

While he was living, Confucius was not a powerful man, nor even a particularly famous man. He was born in China in 551 B.C., and was not much different from most ordinary men in his time. However, today he is well-known as one of China's most prestigious and prominent teachers, and his wisdom is heard around the world.

Confucius was a failed politician, having traveled the land, searching for years to find an appropriate governmental post. Eventually he gave up trying, and went back to his hometown to continue teaching and studying. He edited many different types of texts, from poetry to history and music. He wrote a book called The Analects, which is a collection of short answers to questions. Each answer begins, "The Master says," which is probably where the popular saying, "Confucius say," originated.

With a fondness in his heart for the past, Confucius often rhapsodized about the long-gone "golden age" of the Duke of Chou, a leader in Confucius' youth who had been responsible for instituting many of the nation's festivals, religious practices, ceremonies and morals. At least that was the way Confucius remembered it.

Not typically considered a religious leader, Confucius did not wax poetic about God or metaphysics. He discussed heaven, but only as an impersonal force of morality or ethics, not in the traditional spiritual sense. He was practical and more concerned with earthly matters, such as good manners and treating others kindly and enhancing family relations.

The Teachings of Confucius

Confucianism concerns itself mostly with how to live in the world. This focus is manifest in Confucius' two main ideals: the true gentleman, and proper conduct.

"Chun tzu" is a term that literally means ruler's son or aristocrat, but Confucius took the term and used it as the ideal for every man, no matter to what station he was born. It can mean true manhood, the true gentleman. Confucius felt that each true gentleman must possess five qualities: integrity, righteousness, loyalty, altruism, and goodness, or jen. Jen is the Christian ideal of charity, or loving kindness to others, and a respect for life. The world becomes a more peaceful place when all men (and women) strive to be true gentlemen. Confucius elucidates further:

The Master said, The true gentleman is conciliatory but not accommodating. Common people are accommodating but not conciliatory.

Tzu-Kung asked, saying, What would you feel about a man who was loved by all his fellow-villagers? The Master said, "That is not good enough…Best of all would be that the good people in his village loved him and the bad hated him. (Analects 13:23-24)

Proper conduct is the second foundation of Confucianism. Confucius believed that the practice of social decorum and ritual, or li, was the quickest path to ethical growth. From early childhood, he was fascinated by rites and rituals, and often praised the ceremonial observances of ancient China. Li was comprised of four basic ideas: moderation, agreement of names with deeds, the family, and age.

Moderation was a way to stay between life's extremes. Confucius based this idea on the I Ching, which says that extremes always produce their opposites. It was important to maintain harmony and balance, and stay within limits. To Confucius, this would bring happiness.

Agreement of names meant that everyone should behave exactly as they were called. If one was a father, he should really be a father, and not shirk his duties. "Do your duty; that is best" sums up Confucius' feelings about everyone fulfilling their roles within society and within the world.

The family was of utmost importance to Confucius. He described five social relationships that must always be honored: master and servant, father and son, husband and wife, elder and younger (siblings), and friend and friend. Believing that the family and not the individual was the basic unit of society, he never wavered in his determination that people should love and honor their families.

Confucius urged all people to honor the aged. In his culture, filial piety, or loyalty and adoration of one's parents, was crucial to society. His reverence for ancestors is a practice that still continues today in most Asian cultures.