Confucius Research Paper

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The sayings of Confucius taught millions of Chinese how to lead a good life; they affected Chinese society for more than two millennia as strongly as revealed religions did elsewhere. But Confucius claimed no special knowledge of the supernatural, emphasized everyday human relations, and wished only to preserve ancestral ways. No other civilization relied so completely on merely human authority.

Confucius, or Kongzi as he is known in Chinese, was an itinerant scholar, teacher, and sometime minor official in his home state of Lu during the latter part of the Zhou dynasty (1045–221 BCE), when the Chinese culture area was divided into a large number of competing states.

The very limited success he had as a political and moral reformer in his own lifetime contrasts sharply with the enormous influence his teachings had in future centuries, not only as the philosophical basis for official government doctrine and basic social morality in the unified Chinese Empire after the second century BCE, but also in the surrounding area of Chinese cultural influence, notably in Korea, Vietnam, and Japan.

After the establishment of systematic contact with Europe in the seventeenth century, he became a world figure under the Latinized version of one of his honorific names in China, Kong Fuzi (Kong the Grand Master). Europeans saw in Confucius a distant inspiration and corroboration for the rational humanism of the Enlightenment. More recently, with a new wave of Confucianism carrying the sage to academies, classrooms, and business schools in the West, he has become both an Eastern contributor to global cultural synthesis and the presumed root cause for the cultural dynamic behind the so-called east Asian economic miracle of the late twentieth century.

Clearly these later reincarnations relate more to Confucianism than to the historical person, but however much they partake of the spirit and historical needs of later times, Confucius, the very human, nonmessianic man of the fifth century BCE, is the starting point.

There is an enormous amount of lore and legend about Confucius’s life, but most of it is historically unreliable. The contemporary textual evidence is limited to quotes from the Master and anecdotes about his life that were compiled by his students into a fairly short book, the Lunyu, or Analects. Less reliably, his thought may also be reflected in a history of his home state of Lu, the Chunqiu, or Spring and Autumn Annals, which he allegedly authored, and in several early Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BCE) texts which, because of his supposed editorship, became known as the Five (Confucian) Classics.

Certainly these earlier texts, five centuries old in Confucius’s time, influenced his thought. He was a self-professed traditionalist, holding up the supposed unity and virtue of the early Zhou dynasty and its de facto founder, the Duke of Zhou, as models for Confucius’s own dissolute time of constant interstate warfare and a disintegrating social order. On that point, it is important to note that Confucius came from a social stratum that had fallen from its original position as a warrior aristocracy to become scribe-like functionaries for the increasingly powerful independent states of the later Zhou period. As ritual specialists based on their knowledge of the early Zhou texts, men of Confucius’s class preserved and cultivated the cultural unity of China in a time of political disintegration. For Confucius, li (social ritual) was the essential civilizing basis for the social and political order; only through li could the individuals realize their basic humanity. The patriarchal nature of the social order embodied in li was taken for granted.

In all of this Confucius appears to have been a conservative or even reactionary thinker who wanted to go back to an idealized past in which members of an educated elite had both status and power. But a call to revive the past can be a charge to the present. In some ways, Confucius was a remarkable innovator.

First, there was his emphasis on morality and concern for the welfare of the common people, a theme further developed by his most famous posthumous disciple, Mencius (or Mengzi, 385–303/302 BCE). Politically, this was expressed in the famous “Mandate of Heaven,” which made the ruler of “all under Heaven”—that is, of a politically unified Chinese culture area—responsible to a nonanthropomorphic supreme deity or cosmic principle (Heaven) for maintaining social harmony though non-selfish virtuous rule. Failure to do so could terminate a ruling house through the people’s exercise of the so-called right of rebellion, further explicated two centuries later by Mencius.

This was Confucius’s first check on tyrannical rule. The second, and ultimately more important, was his emphasis on cultivating knowledge and morality through education. Confucius fundamentally undermined the hereditary principle in a stratified society by taking poor as well as rich students. We can assume that his more impoverished students were the children of good families fallen on hard economic times rather than common peasants, but in the long run this practice of offering a literate, moral education to train people for political leadership laid the social foundation for the political order of imperial China. The ultimate product of such an education was the junzi, originally a term for hereditary noblemen, but for Confucius a term that signified an educated, cultivated, and morally centered “noble man.”

Confucius’s teachings, carried on and developed as the Ru school in the centuries after his death, were made the official doctrine of the imperial state during the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), partly as a backlash against the harsh absolutism of the short-lived Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE). Though much changed in subsequent periods, Confucius’s moral emphasis would form the basis for personal self-cultivation and social harmony in the world’s most enduring political structure and cultural formation—not a bad legacy for a frustrated politician turned teacher.


  1. Creel, H. G. (1949). Confucius: The man and the myth. New York: Harper Brothers.
  2. Fingarette, H. (1972). Confucius: The secular as sacred. New York: Harper & Row.
  3. Hall, D. L., & Ames, R. (1987). Thinking through Confucius. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  4. Jensen, L. (1997). Manufacturing Confucianism: Chinese traditions and universal civilization. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  5. Lau, D. C. (Trans.). (1992). Confucius: The analects.
  6. Ni, P. (2002). On Confucius. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
  7. Wei-ming, T. (1985). Confucian thought: Selfhood as creative transformation. Albany: State University of New York Press.

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