Stories of Lao Tzu, Confucius, and Chuang Tzu written by You-Sheng Li

This page is devoted to stories of Lao Tzu, Confucius and others who laid down the philosophical foundation for Chinese culture more than two thousand years ago. It is part of our effort to make this website more enjoyable to read. For a year or so from now, May 2008, we will present Confucius’ life story monthly. (UPDATED: January 2009)

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Confucius’s Life Stories              

(Updated, February 20, 2010)


1.                  A Note


This is not a biography of Confucius but an informal collection of Confucius’s life stories arranged according to time. But it is not a fictional account either. No part of this writing is the author's imagination without authoritative resources.


2.                  Confucius’s Father and Mother


Confucius was the remote offspring of the royal clans of the Shang dynasty (1600-1100 BC). When the Shang dynasty was overthrown around 1100 BC by the Chou dynasty, one of the family member of the king of Shang, Weizi, was named the Duke of a vassal state, Song, where the Shang clans were finally re-settled. Confucius’ ancestor from seven generations past, Zhengkaofu, was a famous minister who worked for three consecutive dukes of the vassal state of Song, and left a carved ritual vessel, ding, with his words:  “After you are appointed as a minister, you lower your head. After you get a promotion, you lower your head even further as if you bend your back. After you get another promotion, you go further to bend your waist. When you walk, you walk along the building to leave the main road to other people. As a result of doing so, nobody can take advantage of you. Then you are able to cook enough porridge to fill up your stomach.” Those words reflect how prudent and modest Confucius’ ancestors were and also show the unfavourable social environment they lived in. It is not surprising that Confucius’s ancestor from six generations past, Confujia (kongfujia) , was killed during a tumult within the clan of the Duke. His son ran away to State Lu for safety, and from then they adapted the surname Con or kong in the present Chinese spelling. State Lu was where Confucius was born and grew up.


Shortly before Confucius died, he dreamed that he was sitting between two columns. It was Shang's customs that the coffin with the dead body in it was located between two columns or buildings for people to pay their respect to the dead. Thus, it was Confucius’s wish that he should be buried according to the Shang's customs, because he was the offspring of Shang.


Confucius’s Father was a low ranking military officer with two major deeds of merit in his military service. Once the army was advancing into the enemy’s city, the locked gate was let down to cut the army into two. Father was strong enough to use his hands to lift up the gate, and the army was able to retreat safely. On the second occasion, Father led an army of three hundred to fight a critical battle so bravely that they defeated an enemy twice as many.


Father and his family lived only a few miles outside the capital, Qufu, of State Lu. Father had nine daughters but no son. To have a son, Father married another woman with whom he did have son. But this son was lame and therefore was not a suitable heir to his career.


In his early sixties, Father finally married Confucius' Mother who was in her twenties. This marriage did not conform to Li (), the ritual, and therefore was a yehe (野合), or an "illicit union". To beg the gods to send them a son, Father and Mother went to a nearby hill to pay their respect to the local god. Then they gave birth to Confucius. They named Confucius Hill or Qiu in Chinese to show their gratefulness to the god of Hill. Historical Records says, Confucius was named Hill or Qiu because he was born with an uneven skull.


Father died when Confucius was three. As a young lady, Mother found it impossible to live with Father's family anymore because of disgrace of this “illicit union”. She took Confucius and his lame brother to live with her own family that was inside the capital. Thus Confucius grew up with his mother in his maternal grandfather's family.


Confucius' social ascendancy linked him to the growing class of shì (), whose status lay between that of the old nobility and the common people, that comprised men who sought social positions on the basis of meritocracy,  rather than heredity.



3.                  Childhood and Growing up


Aurelius Augustine (Saint Augustine, 354-530 AD) was believed to be the first writer in the West who gave a fascinating detailed account of his childhood, a subject almost entirely ignored by other ancient writers.  For the same reason, we knew very little about what happened to Confucius before he became a notable teacher in the State of Lu. 


As a Child, Confucius was said to be fond of rites. He used to arrange some ritual objects in various ways and perform rites according to his understanding as play. This reflects the social environment in which Confucius was brought up. It was intellectual, civilized, and rich in rites. When Confucius was eight, a notable saint, Wujiza, came to pay an official visit on State Lu. He gave insightful comments when watching the musical performance of part of the classic Book of Poetry. He is now considered as the first man in Chinese history who showed deep understanding about arts and literature. State Lu was famous for its cultural traditions inherited from the early Chou dynasty, and Wujiza said that he now understood much better why the Great Chou dynasty was so successful and prosperous in its early years after he had watched this long series of performance of early Chou music and literature. As a child of eight who lived inside the capital of State Lu, Confucius must have been aware of Wujiza’s visit since Confucius later gave very positive comments of him.


As a young man of the ruling class, Confucius learned well the six classic arts: rites or propriety, music, archery, driving, writing, and arithmetic. The six classic arts were the curriculum taught in the official schools for the young people of the ruling class. Confucius’ father was a member of the ruling class, but Confucius’ membership was not recognized. Once a major lord,  Ji , of State Lu invited all  shì () to his house and gave a reception. Since the shì () was a inherited title, Confucius thought he was entitled to be a shì () through his father. To much his embarrassment, the house manager Sun-Tiger (yanghu) refused to let Confucius in, saying “We are entertaining shì () but not you.” It was apparently that the marriage of his parents was not officially recognized. Confucius never entered any of those official schools. He managed to learn those six classic arts by himself though he had some teachers from time to time. His well mastering of the six classic arts enabled him to start the first private school in Chinese history.


When Confucius was seventeen, his mother died. Although Mother was not allowed to follow father’s funeral procession to the graveyard, Mother apparently knew where Father was buried. Confucius’s father was buried in a place called Fang, some six miles east of the capital of State Lu. As a mature and thoughtful young man, Confucius put the bier with the coffin on the street. He waited and waited, and finally an old lady came forward to tell him where his father was buried. Confucius then buried his mother to his father’s side. Thus Confucius eventually managed to have the marriage of his mother to his father recognized after they both died. Confucius then remembered that his mother avoided saying the word “fang” when she was alive. It shows how a sensible lady Mother was.


At the age of nineteen, Confucius married to a girl named Qiguanshi who was from his ancestral State of Song. The next year, they gave birth to a son. The Duke (or king) of the State Lu sent a carp as a present to congratulate the young couple. Confucius was so happy that he named his son after fish carp(li).


According to Historical Records, Confucius was poor and lowly when he was young. Confucius himself once said, “I was humble when I was young, so I did many despicable things.” In his early twenties, Confucius used to work for Lord Ji as a minor official to manage his cattle and horses, and in another time, manage his granary and storage houses.


4.                  A lifelong Example to Model After


Humans are collective animals and they follow each other’s example to behave socially. Infants are born with the ability to mimic grown-ups, and that’s how they learn to speak. Young people often have one or two lifelong examples to model after, and those examples are usually family members or teachers. In Confucius’ life, there were no such exemplary figures among his close associates, not even his parents. Confucius was by far more prominent than the people surrounding him. Confucius was once the acting premier of State Lu, and was regarded as the exemplary teacher for all generations to come in China. There was, however, a man called Master Chan (Zi-Chan or Master Products) who seemed to serve as the lifelong example for young Confucius to model after, though they never met each other personally.


Master Chan was more than thirty years senior to Confucius, and he served as the premier of State Zheng for twenty two years. Master Chan was also notable for his knowledge and virtue in Chinese history. When Confucius heard of Master Chan’s death in 522 BC, he was saddened into tears, saying, “Master Chan was a love left over from ancient time.” What Confucius meant by those words is that people loved each other in ancient time, and such love became rare in Confucius’ time but Master Chan seemed to be the only one left to show passionate love to his people.


When Confucius was 10, a suggestion to close down all local schools was raised to Master Chan, because villagers used such schools to criticize the government. Master Chan turned down this suggestion on the ground that a government had the obligation to listen to its people’s criticism. Confucius once cited this event to refute a saying that Master Chan was not benevolent.


 When Confucius was 23, a hegemonic state ordered all states to pay a tribute at a meeting. Master Chan raised a request for paying less as his state was a low ranking state. They argued and negotiated from noon till dusk, and the hegemony state eventually accepted Master Chan’s request. Master Chan’s example gave Confucius the courage to act bravely on a similar occasion many years later. Confucius spoke highly of Master Chan’s deeds at this meeting, saying it laid down the moral base for the state.


In 524 BC, fire started in four states including Zheng just as a diviner had predicted. Master Chan turned down the diviner’s request for a sacrifice to gods. Master Chan Said, “The Tao of heavens is far away, and the Tao of human world is near. How can we know something beyond our reach?

The diviner does not really know the Tao of heavens, and he is right only by chance.” Confucius held a similar attitude towards the spiritual world. Upon the question of spirits, Confucius’ reply was, “We even do not know enough about what happens when we are alive. How can we know what will happen after we die?”


5.                  Confucius’ Own Summary of the Life he had Lived (by You-Sheng Li, August 1, 2008)


Nowadays we usually summarize a man’s life by his achievements, and his devotion to his family and his friends in a chronological order. That is a typical life in a modern secondary society. Confucius lived in the ending years of the ancient Chinese super state of primary society, and he summarized his life differently. From a study of almost 500 societies, Erika Bourguignon concludes that the frequency, accessibility and quality of religious experiences correlate inversely with the complexity of social structure. In the simplest and most egalitarian primary societies, ritual trance states tend to be voluntary, conscious and accessible to most people who desire them. The life in a primary society is always mingled with emotional and psychological exchanges, and the life in a secondary society is built with rational abstract concepts and concrete measurable achievements or merits. In his late years, Confucius gave us a summary of his psychological journey which everyone can still relate to today. Some expressions from Confucius summary have entered the vocabulary of Chinese daily life.


Confucius said: “At fifteen, my heart set on study and learning; at thirty, I stood firm in society; at forty, I was no longer puzzled by the world surrounding me; at fifty, I knew the mandate of heaven for me and for society; at sixty, I heard the truth with docile ears; at seventy, I do whatever my heart dictates, and it always falls within the boundary of righteousness.” (Analects, 2:4)



6.                  The First Private School and the Visit by Duke Jing of State Qi (YSLi, September 1, 2008)



Confucius was said to be the first person who started a private school in Chinese history. Education had been monopolized by the government ever since the first government was set up. Education was essentially to teach how to become a governmental official or clerk. At Confucius’ time, there had been a traditional curriculum in the schools run by the government, namely, the six classic arts: rites or propriety, music, archery, driving, writing, and arithmetic. Having well mastered the six arts himself, Confucius started to take young disciples and teach them the six arts. Thus Confucius set up the first private school in Chinese history around 525 BC when he was 26 year old.


Both States Qi and Lu were among the major states but State Qi was even bigger than State Lu. The two states were neighbour states and State Qi was in the east along the coast. In 522 BC, Duke (or king ) Jing of State Qi and his premier, the famous statesman Yan-Ying, came to pay an official visit on State Lu. Confucius held no position in the government but Duke Jing requested a meeting with Confucius. It shows that Confucius was well known already. No details of this meeting have survived to today except their talk on the newly emerged power, State Qin.


Duke Jing asked Confucius, “How could Duke Mu of State Qin turn his remote small state into a powerful hegemony?”


Confucius said, “State Qin was small but its leaders had lofty ambitions; State Qin was remote but justice and good administration prevailed within the state. Duke Mu of State Qin knew how to pick up the right person from commoners to help him to run the state affairs. Baili-Xi was only an ordinary labour after he was released from prison. Duk Mu talked to him for three days in a roll and found him to be the right man he had looked for. Baili-Xi was appointed as the premier to manage the state affairs.”


Duke Jing of State Qi was impressed by Confucius comments and insights.



7.         A Political Turmoil Triggered by Cock fights in State Lu ( YSLi, January 23, 2009)



There was in State Lu a political crisis triggered by cock fights which affected Confucius's life. This crisis shows well the unstable social environment Confucius lived in.


When Confucius was alive, it was fashionable to play fighting cocks in the Chinese upper class. Two cocks were set to fight each other, and big money was bet on which would win. In Confucius's state, Lu, two lords had a quarrel over their fighting cocks. One was armed with sharp metal and to damage the rival cock's eyes, the other wore mustard powder on its wings, which excluded any fair play. It was even worse when the minor lord won and insisted that the powerful one had to pay him. The powerful lord did not argue with the minor one but sent troops to take over his manor. The minor lord made a formal complaint to Duke Zhao (541-510 BC), the head of State Lu. Having been unhappy with the powerful lord already, the duke sent troops to surround his clan and their walled city. The powerful lord had often deliberately committed some minor violations of the ritual regulations to show his disregard over the authority of the duke.


During the period of the first three Chinese dynasties, Hsia, Shang, and Chou (2200- 476 BC), the society Chinese people lived in was essential primary or quasi-primary society. In a face-to-face primary society, people have to refrain from punishing their personal “enemies” to the extreme, as they are all the members of a society and have to live together afterwards. During Confucius's time, this system of the ancient Chinese super state of primary society was in a crisis but a typical secondary society had not appeared yet. The powerful ones did often appear arrogant and despotic but public opinion still played an important role.


When the duke came to punish the powerful lord who had used his power to take advantage of the minor one, the public hailed the duke's action. The powerful lord admitted his guilt and appealed to surrender to the duke. Instead of accepting his surrender, the duke determined to eliminate the powerful lord and take all his territory to the State Lu, since at this point, the duke received a strong support from the uncle of the powerful lord. On behalf of the duke, the above mentioned minor lord came to lobby support from another two powerful lords, when the balance of power suddenly changed direction. Those two powerful lords thought that they would be the next in line to be eliminated by the duke. They took the side against the duke and executed the minor lord to show their determination. When the duke ordered his troops to fight against the three powerful lords who were in fact all his ministers and remote clan members , the troops refused to obey the order. The only choice left for the duke was to run away. He took exile in his neighbouring state, Qi, and died there several years later. During his absence, nobody took over his position until his son succeeded the throne after his death.


The above story shows there was no absolute power in the political system of the ancient Chinese super state of primary society. Power was well balanced against each other at all levels to make it possible for Chinese people to still live in primary or quasi-primary society in that era of civilization. The king was the national leader while dukes were the heads of the major vassal states. During the late Spring Autumn Period (771-476 BC), this balance of power seemed to tip a little bit over in favour of dukes over the king, ministers over dukes, and house managers over ministers. Confucius said of the political situation that “the stake of the state is in the hands of the subordinates.”( peichen zhi guoming).


This political crisis happened in 517 BC when Confucius was 35 years old. Confucius apparently favoured the duke’s side but he was such a careful person that he did not say any word openly in favour of one side or another according to the official records. Nevertheless, he left his home state, looking for a job opportunity in State Qi after the crisis.

            8.        Seeking Office in State Qi              YS Li 4/12/09


Deeply disappointed by the internal tumult in 517 BC that ended with Duke Zhao’s running away and a headless state for years to come, Confucius moved into State Qi in the same year to seek opportunity. He stayed there more than two years until 515 BC. Both States Lu and Qi were notable for their rich traditions from the Western Chou dynasty, which Confucius held as a model of his ideal government of virtue. State Qi was much larger and more stable.


Although Confucius had met Duke Jing of Qi once before, he went through the usual channels of recommendation like many office seekers did in those days. It was fashionable that local lords housed many intellectuals and covered their living costs. As Confucius sought help from one of the ministers, Gaoshaozi, Confucius lived inside his house for a length of time. It was here that Confucius enjoyed the opportunity to appreciate the Shao Music for the first time.


The Shao Music was actually a combination of poetry, music, and dance. It first appeared during the reign of the legendary Emperor Shun around 2300 BC. Shun was originally from the area of State Qi. Following the local music style, Shun created Shao Music to praise his political mentor, Emperor Yao. Since Shun was raised to the status of emperor from an ordinary man, Confucius respected Shun very much.


When Confucius first heard the famous Shao Music, his whole heart was attracted to it. His soul was literally immersed in, or even lost in the music. For a total of three months, Confucius could not sense the taste of his favourite food, meat again. Confucius was surprised by this unexpected profound effect on him. He said, “I never knew music could reach this level of excellence!”  (Analects, 7:14) A tablet of stone is now erected to mark this place, and the inscription on it reads, “This is where Confucius first heard the Shao.”


Due to the recommendation by Gaoshaozi, Duke Jing received Confucius in his palace. Confucius gave his famous advice: “Let a duke be a duke, a minister be a minister, a father be a father, and a son be a son!” Duke Jing said, “Excellent! If a duke is not a duke, a minister is not a minister, a father is not a father, a son is not a son, even there are rice and millets, I may not have enough to eat?” Confucius’ words reflected his insights into the chaotic political situation that Duke Jing was facing: Powerful houses of local lords were run like autonomic kingdoms that ignored the authority of the state. Such situations were however commonplace then. (Analects, 12:11)


After their first meeting, Duke Jing often sought advice from Confucius. Another important suggestion Confucius made was to economize on expenditure. Duke Jing was so impressed that he decided to give Confucius a piece of land as his feudal estate. Thus Confucius would become one of the few aristocrats who held offices in the Duke’s court. Fierce resistance came from the Prime Minister, Yanying, who was a famous statesman in Chinese history. Yanying and Confucius shared many views but were different in others.


Backed by the ministers and local lords, Yanying pointed out four major setbacks of Confucianism. First, Confucian followers all had good rhetorical skills. They were eloquent enough to make their radical behaviour look noble. As a result, they did not obey the law and follow the social order.  Second, Confucians were self-important. They tended to do whatever they deemed right. They were not good officials subordinate to the ruler. Third, Confucians put an extra importance on funeral, which required unnecessary grief and wasted a lot of revenue.  Fourth, Confucians travelled all over the land drumming up support for their ideas in order to get a high position. They could not be trusted with the administration of a state.


Those comments remained as some of the most profound criticism of Confucianism in Chinese history. Confucianism did have those problems. On top of this firm foundation, Yanying did not forget to add his sarcastic grievance: “Confucians boast everywhere about the rites that are, they believe, the only legacy of the Western Chou dynasty. Their rites are overloaded with trivial details, such as how to meet people, how to walk, how to eat different foods, how to dress oneself up, and so on. You will never be able to understand all their rites even you spend all your life time studying them, not to mention how to follow them.” ( Historical Records: Confucius)


Stunned by such a torrent of criticism, Duke Jing offered no answer when he heard Yanying asking, “What is the use of those rites? Does your majesty know?”  


Fortunately Yanying did not expect any answers but continued: “None!” he said, “nothing at all. Since the decline of the Chou dynasty, there have been no great sages and statesmen to stop further decline. If the rites of the Western Chou dynasty are of any use, why did they not produce any talents to save the Chou dynasty?”


After hearing those words, Duke Jing did not mention the feudal estate again to Confucius. In fact, Confucian rites are not aiming to solve any social problems or produce statesmen on the level of secondary society. Their rites, in every detail, are the harmony of a perfect social order. They are not utilitarian in any sense. You are supposed to enjoy every detail whether you study it or perform it. Their rites are thus the ultimate goals themselves.


Duke Jing once told Confucius, “I am not able to employ you like your state has offered to Ji. I can only treat you as someone between Ji and Meng.”  Judging from these words, it seems that Duke Jing never stopped treating Confucius as one of his ministers. As a newcomer from another state in a culture where hereditary aristocracy remained strong, this outstanding position eventually aroused widespread envy and hatred towards Confucius.


Rumours spread everywhere. Physical attacks or even assassination were planned for Confucius. Confucius’ heart missed a beat when he heard those rumours. He asked for an urgent reception from the duke. Confucius hoped that the duke would offer protection for his safety. But Duke Jing sighed, “I am too old now. I am sorry that I am no longer able to give you any help.” Confucius had to leave State Qi at once. When he came home, the serviceman was rinsing rice for cooking. Confucius stopped him and took the wet uncooked rice with them. He literally ran away for his own life. (Historical Records: Confucius, Meng Tzu: Wangzhangxia)


9. Tough Choices YSLi 11/12/09


A popular Chinese proverb says, “Since ancient time, emperors and kings have mostly been shameless scoundrels.” Those scoundrels have chosen Confucianism as their official ideology since 136 BC. Such a choice was no accident as the official ideology was but a façade to cover up the ruthless core of this huge centralized empire. This sharp contrast between lofty Confucian morality and cruel reality has led to heartaches for some, tough life choices for others. Their founding pioneer Confucius had a similar experience though Confucius had much more freedom as he still lived essentially in a primary society.


Confucius once summarized the political situation in his time: “The stake of the state was in the hands of minor assistant officials.” (Analects, 16:2) The rites of the Western Chou dynasty were strictly a ranking system, ascribing different ritual behaviours to different ranks of officials. Those minor officials now all wanted to break the restriction of the rites to show off their newly seized power. In Confucius’ native state, Lu, the power fell into the hands of the Jis and two other lords. The three powerful families used the Yung Song at the clearing of the sacrificial vessels. Confucius commented angrily: “How could the three families use such words in their halls? Attended on by lords and princes, how magnificent is the son of heaven!” The Jis once enjoyed a performance by 64 dancers in eight rows, which was normally reserved for the king of the Chou dynasty. Confucius was furious when he heard of it, “If this can be tolerated, what cannot?” (Analects, 3:2, 3:1) Paradoxically, Confucius had been very keen to seek office in the government since his twenties while he had been criticizing the government non-stop. The reason was simple. In Confucius’ time, the only way to improve the government and to restore order was to get an important position in the government. Non-official channels to influence the government were literally non-existent. Confucius failed to get any official positions in his native state until he was 51 years old, though he had all the qualifications: knowledge, moral character, and good reputation. Those powerful ones apparently did not like his sharp criticism.


The power of the three powerful families fell further into the hands of their domestic officials (jiachen), the officials they employed in their own autonomous kingdoms. Those domestic officials thought that they and Confucius shared the same hatred of those three families. They wanted Confucius to join in their rebellious faction.


Those rebels were looked down on by the public, since they rebelled only for their own sake. Such rebellions were exactly the reason for the chaotic political situation during Confucius’ time. It was also what Confucius had hated and criticized. On the other hand, he had been seeking an office for several decades by now. To him, the only chance to put his ideal Confucian theory into practice was to get support from those powerful lords whether they inherited their aristocratic status or seized it by abnormal means. Confucius was a practical man who was ready to accept compromise. Such compromises might invite criticism from his colleagues and followers and must therefore have been the source of heartaches to those who made such compromises. It was a tough choice!


One of those powerful domestic officials was named Sunny Tiger (yanghu). In 504 BC when Confucius was 48 years old, Sunny Tiger wished to see Confucius, but Confucius was reluctant to see him. Confucius still remembered the humiliation when Sunny Tiger refused to let him in when he came to the dinner party held inside the Ji house some thirty years ago. To show his sincerity, Sunny Tiger sent a roasted baby pig as a present to Confucius, who, having chosen a time when Sunny Tiger was not at home, went to pay his respects for the gift. They met each other, however, by chance on Confucius' way home. The Analects 17:1 recorded the following conversation:


Sunny Tiger said to Confucius, "Come, let me speak with you." He then asked, "Can one be called benevolent if he keeps his jewel in his bosom, and leaves his country to confusion?" Confucius replied, "No." "Can one be called wise if he is anxious to be engaged in public employment, and yet is constantly losing the opportunity of being so?" Confucius again said, "No." "The days and months are passing away; the years do not wait for us." Those words must have struck a cord in Confucius’ mind, and he finally let out a positive answer, "Right; I will go into office."


In fact, Confucius eventually did not go as he told Sunny Tiger. In 502 BC when Confucius was 50 years old, those domestic officials from the three powerful houses formed an alliance to stage a rebellion. They occupied a city named Fei and invited Confucius to join them. Confucius gave a serious consideration and hesitated for a length of time.


When Confucius was rather inclined to go, he met fierce objection from his disciples. Gent Road spoke out for those who held objections. Gent Road was very displeased. He considered his master’s intention as a betrayal of his own faith and of the public interest. He said, "Indeed, you cannot go! Why must you think of going to see those rebels?" Confucius did not feel confidence in face of Gent Road’s rejection. Confucius said, "Can it be without some reason other than the fact that he has invited me? If any one employs me, may I not have the chance to make an Eastern Chou?" Those words show a lack of confidence on Confucius’ part. (Analects, 17:4) In the end, Confucius did not go. To stall off criticism from those who urged him to go, Confucius created a perfect excuse: “What does the Ancient Texts say about filial piety? Be filial to one’s parents and friendly to one’s brothers and sisters, which, in turn, influences the government. This is also a way of doing politics. Why does one have to hold a government office?”


Gent Roan was only nine year junior to Confucius, and was quite a unique character among Confucius’ disciples. He was brave, honest, and sincere but was also outspoken and straightforward by temperament. Many years later, after Confucius met with the licentious concubine Nancy of Duke Ling of State Wei, Confucius had to swear solemnly before Gent Road that he did not do anything improper. Confucius said, “If anything indecent I have done, may heaven punish me! May heaven punish me!” (Analects, 6:26) It was this Gent Road who, at his tragic death, asked the enemy to allow him to straighten his clothes and hat before being killed. So saddened by his loyal disciple and close friend’s death, Confucius knew it subconsciously even before he heard the news.




10. Sage Letters 15/01/10


Sage Letters visited State Lu in 544 BC when Confucius was eight and died in 484 when Confucius was 68. Many scholars believe that the inscription of Sage Letters’ name on his tombstone was written by Confucius. If those scholars are right, then this ten character name is the only sample of Confucius’ handwriting left today. Letters is often regarded as a pioneer of Confucianism, and he certainly showed the characteristics of a Confucian gentleman: virtue, wisdom, trustworthiness, and knowledge. A popular anecdote tells how Letters hung a treasured sword on a friend’s gravestone because he had promised to give this sword to this friend when he was alive. But Sage Letters’ legend goes back seven hundred years earlier before Kings Wen and Wu, father and son, founded the Chou dynasty.

The Analects 8:1 records that Confucius says, “Tai Po can be said to be a perfect example of virtue. He thoughtfully declined the rule of the kingdom several times. People could not find the suitable words to admire his lofty deeds.” Tai Po was King Wen’s uncle. He was the eldest son and was thus entitled of access to the throne after his father’s death. He realized that his father had the intention of crowning the third son but was reluctant to express this. When his father was seriously ill, Tai Po took the second brother and hid in the remote mountains in the south, where they founded the Wu State. As a result, the third son, King Wen’s father, became the next king.

Another example of such a comity among brothers to give precedence to each other in access to the throne occurred in the Wu State during Confucius’ time. The exemplary sage was nobody but Letters, whose name Jizha literally means the fourth brother named Letters. Because of his virtue, both his father and the eldest brother reached a consensus that the throne should be left to Letters, who insisted that the first brother should be the right person for the throne. He courteously hid in the mountains, and the first brother became the next king. The first brother left a formal order when he died several years later: “It was our father’s wish that the throne should be given to Letters. Let us hand the throne from brother to brother according to seniority instead of handing from father to son. In this way, it will eventually reach Letters as our father had wished.” As it happened, it was finally Letters’ turn to be the next king. He determined to decline it, and the third brother’s son became the next king. The first brother’s son was not happy, saying. “It should be Letters’ turn if it is inherited according to the seniority of brothers, and it should be my turn if inherited through father and son.” He planned a sophisticated coup, which included sending Letters to visit other states, and killed the new king in 516 BC. He then became the next king. Once back at home, Letters did not condemn the cruelty of this coup but went directly to pay respect to the assassinated king, his nephew, at the tomb. He shed tears profusely. When one of Letters’ sons died in 515 BC, Letters buried him in a place near the territory of the Lu State. Confucius went and observed the funeral.

The story of Letters and Tai Po shows that the Chinese system of primary society still relied on honour, public opinion, or so-called virtue to stabilize the society against various aggressive and goal-oriented forces. Along the same line was also Confucius’ political thought.

Both Confucius and Letters were fond of the arts: music, poetry, and dance. It was beyond any doubt that Confucius was deeply influenced by Letters, especially in the arts. Letters remains as the first art critic in Chinese history. In 544 BC, Letters paid an official visit to State Lu. Since State Lu was rich in the cultural traditions of the Western Chou dynasty, Letters thanked his host for showing him a series of performance of the Chou Music. He was apparently well trained and talented in arts, showing extraordinary understanding. He gave insightful comments after each piece of music had been performed. The performance was carried out roughly in the same order as the poems appear in the current version of the Book of Poetry.

As in the Book of Poetry, poems were grouped according to the states where they were collected. Letters’ comments on those performances reflected the different people of each state: their lives, their emotions, and their overall spirits. The following was only some of his comments to serve as an example.

After the music from the southern areas (zhounan, shaonan) had been performed, Letters says, “How beautiful the tune is! It shows the foundation of the Chou dynasty had been laid down but everything had just begun and so was in their rudimentary stages. But through the music is reflected the feelings of the people. We know that the people expressed only diligence but no grievance.” After the music from the new capital area had been performed, Letters says, “The tune was really beautiful. From the music, I could sense the worry and anxiety of the people but they showed no fear. It should be after the Chou dynasty had moved to the new Eastern Capital.” After the music from the Qi State had been performed, he said, “How beautiful the tune is! The music was so sonorous and deep, and it reflects the style of a big state. Who set up this example for the coast areas? It must be Tai Gong! The future of this state is boundless.” The authors of the Xiaoya were believed to be low ranking officials. After the music of Xiaoya had been performed, Letters said, “How beautiful the tune is! The music revealed worry and anxiety but showed no intentions of betrayal; the music revealed grievance but showed some self-restraint. Were those songs collected after the Chou dynasty had started to decline? I can still see that they are the adherents of the Great kings of the Chou dynasty.”

To Letters, the most enjoyable music was the Shao Music which was created during the reign of the legendary Shun Emperor. After watching the Shao Music, Letters said, “The tradition of virtue has reached its peak. How great it is! It is like the skies that cover all the world. It is like the earth that supports all the world. Even the greatest man of the greatest virtue would not be able to surpass this. Having seen such a musical performance, it can be said to have reached the summit. If there is any more music and dance, I will not care to see them since I have seen the best.”

Confucius’ thought towards poetry and arts was in the same line as the above comments by Letters. They both regarded arts as a way of expressing the people’ feelings, and attached great importance to the arts. They regarded poetry and arts as an essential part of life unlike the later times when poetry and arts had been separated from life and became an independent discipline.

11: His Private School and his Way of Life 12/2/10 YSLi


Confucianism has been and remains as a major influence of the way of thought and life in Far Eastern Asia. Confucius’ philosophy emphasizes personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity. These values gained prominence in China since 156 BC when the Chinese government adopted Confucianism as the official ideology. To be exact, Confucianism is a way of life but it is not focused on the individual level but on society as a whole including the government, the family, and the individual.

Since his late twenties or early thirties, Confucius started the first private school in Chinese history. Although Lao Tzu was believed to have disciples too, it was much smaller in scale. Confucius was said to have a total of three thousand disciples and seventy two of them had reached such social prominence as to be called saints. Confucius’ private school became a pioneering force in the subsequent social movement, named by historians as the Contention of a Hundred Schools of Thought during the Spring/Autumn and Warring States Periods. Those schools formed their own sub-societies where they lived their lives according to their beliefs. Confucius and his disciples typically formed such a sub-society. In their hometown, the capital of State Lu, they might have lived with their own families while gathering each day. Once Confucius moved into another state, his disciples followed him. So they travelled and lived together. In a way, they were like the early Christians who lived a communist lifestyle in a commune. An exception was when a disciple was offered a government position. Even then, they had to keep close contact with their teacher and other disciples.

The Analects gives us a vivid and detailed description of how Confucius and his disciples lived their lives and how they interacted with each other, and what were their daily concerns. The friendly atmosphere and the open objections from his disciples that Confucius had to face from time to time, suggest a typical primary society even though they travelled over different states to promote their ideas, which suggests a specific ideology with a set of values, characteristic of a secondary society. It is, in a way, consistent with the Confucian ideal: to model a secondary society after the primary society.

We are however all impressed by the indirect expression of Confucius’ criticism towards his disciples. He called one of his disciples “a petty man” and characterized another as “non-benevolent”, but only after those two had left the scene. (13:4, 17:19) Once two disciples asked the same question but Confucius gave different answers because of their different personalities. (11:20) My interpretation is that Confucius adapted the lifestyle of a primary society where nobody can force his will on others. They have to live with different people with different ideas. In a secondary society, you have to raise the law and the system of values high enough to be over everybody’s head, and you have to label who is right and who is wrong from time to time accordingly. There are no such things in a primary society. For the same reason, Confucius once said, “There is education but no discrimination of class, type, and so on.” (15:38) On another occasion, Confucius said, “From the one who brought a bundle of dried meat upwards, I have never denied anyone my instruction.” (7:7)

As a result, Confucius’ disciples ranged from the upper class of aristocracy to poor families from the lowest class. According to the Historical Records, one of his disciples (gongyechang) had just been released from prison and another was a former thief (yanzuoju). Modern schools have the right to dispel some of their students. This was apparently not in Confucius’ practice. The Analects do not record any dismissal of disciples. On the other hand, it does not mean that Confucius shared their views when he met Nancy and when he showed his intention to join some rebellious factions.

Confucius also recognized the superiority of personal exemplification over explicit rules of behaviour, which is once again a feature of primary society. His moral teachings emphasise self-cultivation and skilled judgment rather than the knowledge of rules. Confucius’ teachings rarely rely on reasoned argument. That’s why his ethical ideals are conveyed more indirectly through allusions, innuendo, and even tautology.

An example was that when the stables were burnt down, on returning from court, Confucius said, “Was anyone hurt?” He did not ask about the horses. (10.11). The passage conveys the lesson that by not asking about the horses, Confucian gentlemen value human beings over property.

Confucius’ way of life or Confucianism can be explained in three terms, benevolence, righteousness, and rites. But the basic concept is benevolence, on which the latter two, righteousness and rites, are based. Unlike Western philosophers, Confucius did not show any intention to develop a systematic theory of life and society or to establish a formalism of rites. He wanted his disciples to continually study the outside world for knowledge and search deeply into their own souls for the benevolent aspects of human nature. Furthermore, Confucius seemed to focus on particular situations and avoid generalizing his teachings. The Analects 9:4 states: Confucius has eliminated four faults in his life: impossing his will, arbitrariness, stubbornness, and egotism. The Analects 5:12 says, “Our master’s words on the essence of human nature and the heavenly Tao cannot be heard and understood.” In fact, the essential human nature and the heavenly Tao will be the main topics one has to face if he talks about any philosophy or way of life. It shows that Confucius adhered to the way of life in primary society and refused to develop any new theoretical system to guide a particular way of life in secondary society.

The Chinese character for benevolence essentially symbols two persons or the relation among men. Confucius gave many versions of answers to the question: “What is benevolence?” The most representative answer is: “Benelonce is loving other people.” (12:22) Confucius further pointed out: “The basis of benevolence is the filial piety one holds towards his parents and the friendliness towards his brothers and sisters.” (1:2)

Righteousness lets us know what is right and what is wrong. Rites and propriety let us know how to behave ourselves according to the norm of the society. Confucius held the view that his principles of benevolence, righteousness, and rites apply equally to everyone in society including peasants, government officials, and the governer himself.

Confucius wanted to revive the perfect virtue and the classical properties of the Western Chou Dynasty to build a great harmonious and humanistic society. Apparently, Confucius aims at the harmonious enjoyement of life in a primary society, not the adventurous enterprises in a secondary society. He says: With coarse rice to eat, with water to drink, and my crooked arm for a pillow - is not joy to be found therein? Riches and honors acquired through unrighteousness are to me as the floating clouds (7:15)

Here comes the fourth component of Confucius’ teachings: the Confucian gentleman. Confucian gentleman, or junzi in Chinese, appeared 107 times in the Analects. More than sixty paragraphs out of the total of 512 are devoted to elucidation of various issues concerning the concept of confucian gentlemen. For example, Confucius listed out the six phrases about the six foils (17:8), the five excellent and the four flawed behaviours ((20:7), the three beneficial and the three harmful friendships(16:4), the three beneficial and the three harmful enjoyments (16:5). A Confuciuan gentleman has to avoid the three common mistakes, and to guard against the three attempts(16:6,7). A Confuciuan gentleman has to be in awe of the decree of heaven, of great men, and of the words of sages (16:8), and shows nine patterns of awareness (16:9).

Confucius has apparently sanctified the concept of the Confucian gentleman. It becomes an ultimate realm one has to aim at. The pursuit of such a lofty realm itself becomes a piece of art in the hands of Confucian followers. It is called life cultivation. A Confucian life itself is a piece of art to enjoy, admire. If everyone lives his life like a piece of art, the society will be in perfect harmony in a primary society setting, but not necessarily in a secondary society setting.

In the Analects, Confucius presents himself as a "transmitter who invented nothing".(6:1) Then could Confucius become the founder of the official ideology for the next two thousand and more years? He put the essence of the primary society in a new expression that people who live in a secondary society can relate to. Of course, Confucius did not have to create any new word but lent new meaning to two old words, benevolence and gentlemen. Confucius was the first man who sanctified the concepts of benevolence and gentlemen. They became the ultimate realms a culture and its people are aiming at. Benevolence became the symbol for human nature and a gentleman became the model for all people in spiritual and aesthetic terms.


12. Governor of the Capital Region


Social power was balanced and checked at all levels in Confucius’ time. The rebellion of the allied domestic officials of the three powerful families was a result of and also reflected the fact that there was no absolute power. Sunny Tiger was once the leader of this allied rebellion, and he planned an attack on one of the three families and arrested Ji, the prime minister. But those rebellious officials did not have absolute power either over the people under their control. As a result, their planned attack was revealed to the three families which had time to get prepared. Ji, the prime minister, persuaded the guard of the prison to let him go by being persistently friendly to him. Like Duke Zhao, Sunny Tiger ran away into the neighboring state, Qi, after the rebellion failed. Unexpectedly, the political situation turned out to be beneficial to Confucius, since he was regarded as the midian between the three families and their rebellious domestic officials. For years, neither side wanted Confucius. Now in a violent confrontation, both sides wanted to recruit him against the other side. The three families admired Confucius for his refusal to join the rebellion and recruited him to the government side. It was nobody else but Confucius himself who cracked down this rebellious city, Fei, which had once invited him to join. But that’s a few years later. Confucius’ first appointment was the governor of the capital region. The power was in the hands of the three families but Confucius was officially appointed by Duke Ding.

Confucius worked as the governor of the capital region for only one year, from 501 to 500 BC. Confucius so treasured this opportunity which he had awaited so long that he employed all his talents and made every effort to make it a lasting success. Historical Records says, “All neighboring areas in the four directions followed the example Confucius set up in the capital region.” Confucius was then promoted to a ministerial position in charge of public constructions. Another half year later, Confucius was promoted again and became the minister in charge of public security, justice, and foreign affairs. In this position, Confucius accompanied Duke Ding of State Lu to meet Duke Jing of State Qi. This meeting as the peak of Confucius’ political career was well documented in Historical Records, the Analects, Zuozhuan, Guliangzhuan, and Gongyangzhuan.

The meeting was requested by Qi but Lu accepted it. Qi was much more powerful than Lu and thus it required delicate diplomatic techniques to deal with this disparity. Confucius’ words and actions were considered to be critical for a successful meeting in favor of the Lu side.

Before the meeting, a minister suggested to Duke Jing, “Confucius is only good at rituals but lacks courage. We can have armed men ready. Whenever it is neccessary, we will kidnap Duke Ding to force him to agree to be our dependent state.” Duke Jing agreed.

Unaware of State Qi’s plan, Duke Ding expected a peaceful and friendly meeting, and did not want to bring any army. It was Confucius who thought of such a possibility, and said, “As required by the traditional rites, we have to take our army behind us as a back up in case of need.”

In accord with the rituals of the day, a raised platform of earth was built. The two dukes climbed onto the platform from two opposite sides and met each other on the top. They greeted each other and exchanged gifts. When it was over, a Qi official ran to the front and reported to Duke Jing, “As an entertainment to our honorable guest, may we present our musical dances of the local ethnic groups from all four directions?” Duke Jing okayed this.

Hundreds of armed men came to wave their weapons, though some of them were colorfully dressed as dancers. Confucius stood up and spoke to the Qi official in a serious voice: “At such a friendly meeting, how could you bring so many barbarians here? Please order them to retreat immediately.” Those ethnic soldiers backed up a little but refused to leave.

Confucius spoke loudly and solemnly, “We two neighboring states are meeting here for friendliness. How can we have so many soldiers? Do you really want to kidnap our duke? It is not pleasing to the gods, it is a deviation from virtue, and it lacks propriety to treat a friendly neighboring state like this!”

Duke Ding now looked at Confucius with full gratitude. Their army was nearby and could come immediately after being called. As a violent conflict was apparently no good for neither side, Duke Jing finally ordered those ethnic soldiers to leave. When it was about to sign the treaty, the Qi side raised a sentence, “Whenever State Qi goes on an expedition, the Lu State has to send three hundred war chariots to fight with the Qi army.” This meant that the Qi State would still treat Lu as its dependent state.

Confucius knew well that Qi was much too powerful, and Lu was in no position to dispute its request directly. Confucius said, “As we two states are so closely linked together like one state, your state has no ground to occupy part of the territory of State Lu. Please return the three cities and their surrounding areas to us.” Those three cities were conquered by State Qi a few years ago. To have Lu on the Qi side in the political conflicts among the warring states, Qi okayed Confucius’ request. Without any loss of their soldiers’ lives, State Lu had their three cities back as their territory.

As a small state surrounded by major powers, the Lu State has experienced many humiliations in the past. They regarded this meeting as one of the rare occasions when they maintained their dignity as an independent state. Confucius’ reputation rose afterwards. He was promoted to Acting Prime Minister. Confucius was overjoyed and his disciples noticed, saying “Is there a saying that a gentleman is not afraid in a time of disaster but not too happy either when lucky nocks on the door.” Confucius said, “Yes, there is. But another saying goes: It will make you happy if you are able to respect all the people who are below you in social status.”


13: Failure and Departure (You-Sheng Li, 26 February 2010)


It was when he worked as the acting prime minister that Confucius led a campaign to pull down the walls of the three castled cities, which belonged to each of the three powerful families. Here Confucius delicately utilized the conflicts between the three families and their domestic officials in order to achieve the goal of weakening all of them.


In the summer of 498 BC, Confucius cited the ancient rites and regulations while talking to Duke Ding of State Lu. He said, “Our Chou dynasty has its rules and regulations to ensure the stability and prosperity of the country. Ministers are not allowed to store weapons; senior officials (dafu) are not allowed to have walled cities beyond six hundred meters. Now the three families all have their cities exceeding this measure. Their walls have to be destroyed.”


Duke Ding was very happy about Confucius’ suggestion, as he had been humiliated by the power of the three families. As Confucius had expected, the three families unanimously agreed to this suggestion, as they wanted to smash their domestic officials who now used those cities as their strongholds. Thus an official decision was made by Duke Ding and his court to collapse the walls of the three cities. In charge of this political campaign, Confucius chose the easiest one to start with, the weakest of the three families who held the Hou city. The family was happy to see that such a campaign minimized the differences among the three families and weakened the rebellious power of their domestic officials. The city walls of Hou were pulled down and levelled quickly and smoothly.


Confucius chose the most powerful family, Ji, as the second target. Ji and his family lived in the capital, and the Fei city of which the walls were to be pulled down was in his feudal estate. Ji and his family supported this campaign as they knew well that the domestic officials there would rise again to a rebellion when Confucius led people to the city. They were happy to see a confrontation between Confucius and the city that had once invited him to join them. If those domestic officials had chosen to stay inside their stronghold in a defensive position, Confucius might not have succeeded. But they decided to lead an army to attack the capital.


Duke Ding and the three families all climbed up to the top of a high platform that belonged to the Ji family. Even with such a precaustion, the rebels’ arrows fell down in front of Duke Ding, which frightened everyone. Fortunately Confucius had made detailed arrangements for this coming attack. He sent two generals with their army to attack the rebellious army from behind. As a result, they could not get inside the capital city and had to retreat. On their way home, the state army attacked them again. They had to surrender to the state army. But the rebellious leader ran away into State Qi. The walls of city Fei were then levelled.


The second powerful family’s domestic officials had persuaded their master in advance, saying, “To pull down the walls of our city, Cheng, is neither good for State Lu nor good for our family. Our city is near the border with State Qi. Without city walls, the Qi army can easily conquer the city. To level off our city walls is also levelling off our family’s defence.” Their master agreed. They did not openly raise any objection but sought excuses to delay the action again and again. More than half a year had passed and it was winter now. There was no hope of seeing any action soon. Duke Ding led an army to attack the city, Cheng, but failed to capture it. This political campaign had to be called off before it was completed.


It shows the universal absence of absolute power in the ancient Chinese super state of primary societies. If a vassal state refused to obey the king, the king had two choices: either keeping silent or leading an army into a confrontation with this vassal state. This principle also applies to the United Nations today. Military confrontations are still the ultimate way of settling a dispute between the United Nations and one of its member countries.


Similarly inside State Lu, nobody could order anybody around if he chose to disobey. As a result, the Duke, the most powerful families, and even Confucius all had to learn how to live with people who disobeyed them and or even rebelled against them. From the political tumults inside State Lu during Confucius’ time, we see clearly that the one who took the first extreme measure to change the balance risked a much greater chance of ending in failure. Both Duke Zhao and Ding ended in failure when they led an army to attack one of the powerful families. So did the domestic officials who imprisoned the prime minister and who came to attack the capital. There was no loyal alliance, and people switched sides quickly and readily. On the other hand, failure or being defeated did not mean much. At most, they went to another state to start a new life.


Confucius apparently did not earn enough trust to carry out this campaign. His wisdom and careful calculation and planning only led him half way to success before the three families turned their backs on him. It happened that Yan Ying the famous statesman and prime minister of State Qi had just died. The ministers of State Qi all voiced their opinions: “After we lost Yan Ying, nobody in our court can match Confucius. We have to seize this opportunity to drive a wedge between Confucius and Duke Ding with the powerful families.”


State Qi sent eighty ladies of beauty and one hundred twenty of their best horses as a gift to Duke Ding and his ministers. The arrival of those beautiful women and horses caused quite a stir in the capital city. Everyone tried to get a glance at them and the news was on everyone’s lips. Duke Ding and Ji were absent from the court for three days in a row. The Qi ministers might have expected to see a verbal fight between Confucius and Duke Ding. But Confucius left State Lu without a word. Confucius considered it unworthy to say anything in front of such a court. Gent-Road, the disciple who often opposed his master openly, gave Confucius his full support. The prime minister sent a minor official ostensibly to say goodbye to Confucius outside the city wall but in fact he was trying to get a clue why Confucius left his native state. Confucius only hinted to him by singing a song: “To have women close and trusted, you will lose your confident fellows. We will wander away with joy and pass our years carefree.” The official then reported to the prime minister, who said, “So Confucius is unhappy about those female entertainers.”


14: State Wei (You-Sheng Li, 5 March 2010)


When Confucius left his native state, he and his disciples never anticipated that they would have to travel from state to state as if they were in exile for 14 years and that even worse, they would fail to find any state to carry out their political ideas. The fourteen years started and ended in State Wei, their next door neighbouring state in the west. They came back to Wei several times during the 14 years. Thus Wei served as a kind of base camp for them, since they had acquaintances and relatives in the state court, and later even Confucius’ disciples worked there. State Wei never offered Confucius any important position but it never rejected him either.


Because of Confucius’ nationwide reputation, Confucius was received well by the local governments wherever they went though they failed to get a proper position to put their political ideology into practice. Meng Tzu summarized Confucius’ principles about holding public office: “He wished to convince others of the validity of his political ideas. When it became apparent that his ideas could be put into practice but the ruler refused to do so, then Confucius went away. In the end, he never completed in any state a residence of three years. Confucius took office when he saw that the practice of his ideas was likely; he took office when his reception was proper; he took office when he was supported by the state. In the case of his relation to the prime minister Ji in State Lu, he took office, seeing that the practice of his ideas was likely. With the duke Ling of Wei, he took office, because his reception was proper. With the duke Min of Chen he took office, because he was maintained by the State.” (Meng Tzu, Wanzhangxia)



Confucius and his disciple stayed only for a few months after their first arrival in Wei in 497 BC. Duke Ling of State Wei promised to match the salary and treatment that Confucius had received in Lu. Some ministers warned Duke Ling, “Confucius, such an able and knowledgeable man, leads so many disciples of various talents. They have the ability to take over our state government at any moment and run it well from the very beginning.” Duke Ling then sent some spies to follow Confucius and his disciples until Confucius found out and left Wei.


Confucius was back to Wei later in the same year. Duke Ling regretted that he had sent spies after Confucius. Thus Duke Ling went outside the city walls to welcome Confucius back. Confucius still could not get a proper position to practice his political ideas though he was treated respectfully, which made Confucius feel even more badly. At her insistent invitation, Confucius met Duke Ling’s favourite young concubine, Nancy. But Confucius’ disciples were very unhappy with this meeting, since Nancy had a bad reputation. Soon after this, Duke Ling and Nancy rode in a cart pulled through the capital streets like a parade but they arranged a cart for Confucius to follow closely behind them. Confucius was shamed sitting inside the cart as if he had heard the public saying, “See, this sagely figure Confucius is among them, those licentious and spoiled!” Confucius had been a nationally renowned scholar by now and he had a reputation for benevolence and uprightness. Both Duke Ling and Nancy wanted to use Confucius’ image to improve theirs.


Duke Ling once asked Confucius whether he should send troops to put down the rebellion in the area named Pu. Confucius gave all the reasons that he should send troops and asserted that he would certainly meet no serious resistance. But Duke Ling worried that those rebels might surrender to the neighbouring state since it was a bordering area. Thus, contrary to Confucius’ advice, he took no action. As in most such cases of grown-up sons with their father’s young concubines, the crowned prince and Nancy did not get along well. Their relation was once so bad that the prince arranged an assassin to take her life on a formal social occasion. The assassin had a chance to take action as planned but hesitated to do so. The prince urged him repeatedly by gesture and even by suggestive words. Nancy eventually realized what was going on. She screamed. When the guards rushed in to arrest the assassin, the crowned prince managed to run away into a neighbouring state, Jin. Urged by Nancy, Duke Ling wanted to send troops to get him back. When the Duke asked Confucius’ opinion, Confucius replied, “I know ritual ceremonies well but know little about military matters.” He thought, “How can you make a big deal of such a family matter? He is your son!”


When Duke Ling died years later, he left his throne to one of his young sons. But this son did not dare to take the throne as the crowned prince was still living abroad. Nancy let crowned prince’s son, Duke Ling’s grandson, be the next duke, Chu. The former crowned prince wanted to come back after hearing of his father’s death. The new duke, Chu, sent troops to the border to prevent his father from coming back. It is interesting to notice that Sunny Tiger, the failed rebel in State Lu, ran into State Qi, but Qi disliked his rebellious behaviour. He was now in State Jin and became a chief domestic official in one of their powerful families just like he had been in State Lu. So Confucius could not find himself a proper position abroad but Sunny Tiger eventually did. Confucius was too idealistic. Sunny Tiger escorted the former crowned prince successfully back to his native state Wei but failed to plant him as the next duke. This dispute between father and son lasted more than a decade as they were backed by two large states, Qi and Jin respectively. Confucius’ disciple and close friend, Gent-Road was killed many years later in one of their violent confrontations.


A family quarrel developed into a great mess that lasted two generations and involved several states. Confucius was sickened by such a scandal as his political ideology emphasized mutual respect and harmony restricted by the rites. He commented afterwards, “Regarding the similar tumultuous internal politics, States Lu and Wei are truly brothers.”(13:7) Confucius left Wei again.


15: States Chen and Chu (You-Sheng Li 12 March 2010)


The next state where Confucius stayed a long time was Chen, a state even smaller than Confucius’ native state, Lu. One day an eagle fell down to the ground with an unusual arrow cut into its body. The head of the arrow was made of stone. Duke Min of Chen had never seen such an arrow. He sent a man to ask Confucius about it. Confucius recognized the arrow, and said, “When King Wu of Chou established the rule all over China more than six hundred years ago, many remote states came to pay their respect. A far northern state named Sushen brought such arrows as their tribute. To my knowledge, the king allotted those arrows to all the vassal states including Chen that share the same surname with Chou, and let them keep those arrows as a reminder: Never forget those ethnic people who live in our peripheral areas. Duke Min sent men to check their storage houses, who soon reported back: They did find such arrows. Everyone was amazed by Confucius’ knowledge.


During the 14 years abroad, Confucius and his disciples only visited mid sized and small states. They were once on the way to two major states, Jin and Chu, but never reached their capitals. When they were about to cross a major river to enter State Jin, sad news came. Two men whom Confucius respected very much were executed by the Jin authority. Confucius sighed, “How beautiful is the vast expanse of water flowing so quietly and so magnificently! I have no longer the desire to go.” His disciples did not understand why their master had suddenly changed his mind. Confucius explained, “Those two men were sages to me. The ruler of State Jin relied on them to build his power. Once he was in control, the ruler killed them. I have heard, the phoenix will not come if people have destroyed the nests of birds and taken away their eggs. The dragon will stop rain from falling if people have caught all the fish in a pond or a lake. Even birds and animals empathize with their own kinds. How can we remain impassive to their deaths?”


Confucius entered State Chu twice in 490 and in 489 BC. He met the famous local governor, Lord Ye, there. Ye asked Gent-Road what kind man his master was. Gent-Road failed to give a proper answer right away but told Confucius afterwards. Confucius said, “Why didn’t you tell him, I am such a man who is so eager to study and work that he forgets to eat and who is so joyful that he forgets his plight and is unaware of his old age approaching.”(7:18)


Lord Ye sought advice from Confucius about how to govern the land. Confucius told him: “Let the people who live nearby enjoy their lives, and let the people who live far away wish to come to live on the land under your control.” Lord Ye thought it was the best advice to solve his problem with different ethnic groups. Lord Ye then told Confucius, “There are some righteous men in my land: If the father steals a sheep, the son will testify against his father.” Confucius said, “In my land, righteous men are different: The father conceals the wrongs of his son, and the son conceals the wrongs of his father. This is righteousness.” (13:16, 18)


King Zhao of Chu was impressed by Confucius’ reputation and decided to give him a feudal estate that covered seven hundred communities. Each community had twenty five households. It was a very generous offer. Once again it met serious resistance from the ministers and aristocrats. They warned the king that none of our ministers, generals, and local governors could match the talents and ability of Confucius’ disciples. To make it worse, Confucius was aiming to set up a benevolent rule over all China like the early kings of Chou did. One thing was certain that our offspring would be unable to enjoy a peaceful life for generations to come if Confucius became powerful in our state. After hearing those words, the king became silent. So Confucius was never invited to come to the capital.


Once Confucius and his disciples wanted to cross a river but did not know where the ferry was. Gent-Road went out to find someone to ask. He met some hermits there. They asked, “Are you one of the men who follow Confucius, travelling all over the various states?”


Gent-Road said, “Yes, I am.”


They then commented, saying, “Chaos, chaos, is everywhere in the whole realm. Who can change it? You guys run away from one state of people after another. Why don’t you join us who run away from the world of people?”


Having been told about this, Confucius said, “How can I group with birds and beasts? I am a man. If I do not group with people, who will I group with? If Tao prevailed in the world, I would not need to busy myself like this trying to change it.”


Another day when Confucius sat inside his cart travelling, a sloppily dressed man sang loudly towards Confucius’ cart: “Phoenix, phoenix. Why is your virtue in decline? The past cannot be corrected but the future is still in your hands. Give it up, give it up. Whoever involves himself in current politics will end in danger.” Confucius stopped his cart and jumped down, trying to catch up with the singer, who went away and never turned his head to look back.


King Zhao of Chu died the next year, and the new ruler did not show the slightest interest in Confucius and his disciples. Confucius had to leave State Chu.


16: Adventurous Hardships (You-Sheng Li 19 March 2010)


Confucius and his disciples all belonged to the ruling class. They were well received and supported by the state governments but they were not always understood by the people of the ruled class and the local lords. Their adventurous hardships, though few, are well recorded and widely known in subsequent history. These all happened while travelling from one state to another except one which was caused by an angry general.


(1) Surrounded by Hostile Men for Five Days at Kuang

In 504 BC, Sunny Tiger led an army to attack State Zheng but passed through Kuang. They forced their way through this walled city without permission. When the local people tried to stop them, Sunny Tiger led his experienced soldiers to beat those local men up. Seven years later when Confucius had left State Wei and come to Kuang, they were in serious trouble. The local people mistook Confucius for Sunny Tiger since they were similar in appearance. The local people gathered and surrounded them for five days. Confucius’ disciples were very afraid because they had no idea what those angry men would do to them. Confucius said, “King Wen has passed away, and isn’t his culture of rites and propriety with me? If Heaven wants the culture to vanish, how could I have mastered it? If Heaven wants the culture to survive, what can the Kuang people do to me?” (9:5) The local people eventually realized that Confucius was not Sunny Tiger. They finally let Confucius and his disciples go.


(2) Confucius and his Disciples ran Into Trouble Again at Pu

An aristocrat had a dispute with Duke Ling of Wei and occupied Pu as the staging ground a rebellion. The aristocrat regarded Confucius as his enemy since Duke Ling trusted Confucius and his disciples. Confucius and his disciples were surrounded again by hostile men. One of Confucius’ disciples was a brave rich man with five carts and several service men. He said, “We were surrounded by hostile men for five days at Kuang. Now we are in a similar situation. Is it our fate to end like this? I would rather die in fighting than endure this hardship!” His determination filled the local people with fear, and they asked their leader, this rebellious aristocrat, to talk it out with Confucius. They said to confucius, “We will let you go if you take an oath that you will not go back to State Wei again.” Confucius agreed and said, “We will certainly not.”


Once released from those hostile men, Confucius decided to go directly back to State Wei. Gong did not understand and asked, “You took an oath in front of the Pu people that we will not go back. How can we break our own oath?” Confucius said, “We were forced into an oath. Such an oath is not the mandate of Heaven. God will not care if we break such an oath.” In fact, Confucius disliked such a rebellion and thought those men should be punished. Thus Confucius tried hard to persuade Duke Ling to send troops to put down the rebellion at Pu, but Duke Ling was reluctant to do so.


(3) Surrounded by Hostile Soldiers for Seven Days Without Food

In 489 BC, war broke out among three neighbouring states, Chen, Cai, and Wu. It happened that Confucius and his disciples were travelling along the border between Chen and Cai, which was inside the warring area. Furthermore, they on their way to go to State Chu, which was far bigger than either Chen and Cai. The ministers and generals of States Chen and Cai thought it was not good news for them if State Chu would offer Confucius an important position. They allowed their soldiers to surround Confucius and his disciples. The war dragged on. There was no battle but armed soldiers were everywhere. It was almost impossible to move around. Those soldiers were hostile to them after they received orders from their generals and ministers. For a total of seven days, there was no food for Confucius and his disciples except grass roots and weeds. Some of them fell sick because of starvation.


But Confucius’s spirits were not dampened and he kept singing to his zither. Gent-Road said, “A gentleman in such conditions, can he be said to be destitute?”


Confucius said, “What a truth you have spoken! A gentleman is rich if he has Tao but poor if he has departed from Tao. Now we have the Tao of benevolence and righteousness as our goal. Even though we are hard-pressed by a chaotic time, how can you say we are destitute? We have the Tao within, and have virtue to help us face the trouble. In the winter of snow and frost we notice only the flourishing green of pines and cypresses. How lucky I am to live in such a troubled time!” Confucius again played his zither, singing. Gent-Road was so excited by his master’s words that he took over a shield and started dancing, and all the disciples joined in, dancing and singing.


(4) Cutting Down the Tree and a Homeless Dog

When Confucius travelled inside State Song, he heard the news that the state general was worried about the decaying of his body after death. He wanted to prepare a perfect coffin carved out of stone. Masons had worked for three years and had not finished it yet. Confucius said, “As rich and luxury as he is, it is much better to let him decay sooner!” With Confucius’ reputation, the word spread to the general’s ears. The general was outraged. He sent many soldiers bearing big knives. Fortunately they did not cut anybody’s head off. Instead, they cut down the tree under which Confucius and his disciples were sitting to discuss and practice rituals. The message was clear: This time the tree was being cut. You, Confucius, would be next. To calm and console his disciples, Confucius said, “Heaven gave birth to Confucius. What can he do with me?”


Confucius and his disciples had to leave State Song immediately. To be careful, they all wore a disguise and avoid travelling together. When they reached the neighbouring state, Zheng, where it was finally safe for them, they had to look for each other. The disciples asked the local people if they had seen their master. A man told them, “I saw someone standing by the eastern city gate. His head looks like the Yao Emperor’s and his waist looks like Yu the Great’s. His appearance looks like he is in such dire and sore straits that he was really a homeless dog.”


The disciples came to the city gate and found that it was indeed their master. After hearing those descriptions of him, Confucius did not forget to be humorous, saying: “I look like neither Yao nor Yu the Great. He says I look like a homeless dog. Yes, yes, I do look like one.”


17. Confucius Life stories: Back Home You-Sheng Li 9/4/2010


Although Confucius could not attain any prominent position to advocate and carry out his political ideas, his reputation rose day after day and gave the world an impression of a perfect gentleman, upright and with strict principles. If Confucius stood as a sharp criticism of all rulers, he was a slap on the face of the ruler of his native state, Lu. The people of State Lu said, “Our state was peaceful and prosperous when Confucius was at home. One misfortune after another has befallen on us since Confucius left the state.” The ruler and his ministers often discussed if they should have Confucius back. They worried about their being unable to adapt Confucius’ suggestions, which might invite more criticism from the people. Suddenly they came upon a good idea: Why don’t we employ some of his disciples? Some of them seemed to be much more practical than Confucius himself.


They first employed Confucius’ disciples only temporarily for certain missions. They soon found out that those disciples were all talented able men, who could be trusted and were therefore a valuable resource to the state. Then they offered them some permanent positions. One of them, a young man, led an army and won a critical battle. People asked him, “Where did you learn such great skills?” He answered proudly, “Confucius taught me how to fight a war.” Now they decided to have Confucius back.


Confucius returned to his native state in 484 BC when he was 68 years old. He was respected as a father figure to the state and was consulted about state affairs from time to time. Confucius was never officially appointed to any government position. Confucius dedicated his later years mainly to education, and compiling and editing ancient texts.


During Confucius’ absence from his native state, both the old duke and the old prime minister died. Their sons had now taken their positions. The power was still in the hands of the three powerful families, and the young prime minister came from the same family, Ji. When Confucius was invited back, they intended to offer him a position in their court, but this did not happen. After Confucius was back, both the duke and the prime minister consulted him about how to run the state. Confucius’ replies always conveyed a sharp criticism of the current rulers, who finally decided not to offer Confucius any public office.


The Duke asked, "What should I do in order to secure the submission of the people?" Confucius replied, "Advance the upright and set aside the crooked. Then the people will submit to you. Advance the crooked and set aside the upright. Then the people will not obey you."(2:19) In fact, what Confucius indicated by these words was that the current ministers and government officials were mostly crooked and should thus be replaced by ones who were as upright as Confucius and his disciples.


The young prime minister asked Confucius about government. Confucius replied, "To govern means to behave yourself correctly. If you set up an example by behaving correctly, who will dare not to behave correctly?" Here Confucius was punning on the fact that the Chinese words for “government” and “correct” are pronounced the same. (12:17)


The prime minister, distressed about the number of thieves inside the state, inquired of Confucius how to do away with them. Confucius said, "If you, sir, were not covetous, nobody would steal from you even if the state were to offer them a reward to do so."(12:18)


On another occasion, the prime minister asked Confucius, "What do you say to killing the unprincipled for the good of the principled?" Confucius replied, "Sir, in governing, why should you need killing at all? Let your evinced desires be for what is good, and the people will be good. The relation between superiors and inferiors is like that between wind and the grass. If the virtue of the superiors is the wind, the grass will always bend, when the wind blows across it." (12:19)


What Confucius told the prime minister in the above three quotations indicated that Confucius adhered to his principle that China should remain in the system of primary societies, where leadership was based on persuasion and consensus or in other words, to lead the people by exemplary behaviour. Vice versa, all the bad behaviour on the people’s side was deemed to originate from the rulers themselves.


In Confucius time, the main form of society was still primary or quasi primary society. In a primary society, people will spend their spare time enjoying themselves, by means of artistic creation, including the ritual performance and cultivation of the self that Confucius had advocated. Now people had begun to use their spare time to pursue more materialistic things, like wealth, military power, and even social power. Those new pursuits still remained scattered and fragmentary. As a result, those activities themselves did not form another society to replace the old one but challenged the old one. Confucius wanted to stop those new pursuits from leading to a new system of society.


The people in authority often thought otherwise. If they would not pursue those new pursuits, they might be lagging behind others, and had no power to protect themselves when those pursuers came to conquer them. So they might have told Confucius, “Your ideas are great, but I prefer to follow your ideas after all the others have done so. I do not want to be the first.” It would be suicidal if they adapted Confucius’ suggestions such as rewarding thieves to stop thefts.


On the contrary, the rulers of State Lu took preemptive actions to secure their rule. One small state named Zhuanyu located beside the troublesome city Fei, which even though it had lost its walls, was still a challenge to the state authority. Zhuanyu was an independent but affiliated state to State Lu. If Fei would rise against State Lu, they would certainly enrol Zhuanyu, which would have no power to say no to Fei. Guided by such calculations, the rulers of State Lu sent troops to conquer Zhuanyu as its own territory.


Confucius and his disciples all opposed this action, and Confucius was fierce, saying “I have heard that those who have states or families are not worried about being poor but about the uneven distribution of wealth; they are not troubled by lacking people but by being unable to live peacefully together. For when equality prevails, there will be no poverty; when harmony prevails, there will be no scarcity of people; and when there is such a contented repose, there will be no rebellious uprisings. So it is. Therefore, if remote people are not submissive, they (the rulers) should develop civil culture and cultivate virtue to attract them to be so; and when those remote people come, they must be made content and tranquil.… Now, remote people are not submissive, and, they cannot attract them to come. In their own territory there are divisions and downfalls, leavings and separations, and they cannot preserve it. And yet they take these hostile actions inside the state. I am afraid that their sorrow will not be on account of Zhuanyu, but will be found within the screen of their own court.” (16:1)


Again Confucius adhered to the system of primary societies but unfortunately, he could not stop those who were trying to set up the social fabric of secondary societies to secure their advantageous position against others. The rulers of State Lu thought it was a foolish idea to use their own behaviour to attract remote people. They used military power and a reward-punishment system to secure the loyalty of their subordinate people. So taking over the state, Zhuanyu, would not, as Confucius suggested, cause any sorrow within their court.

18. Confucius Life stories, The Later Years You-Sheng Li, 16/4/2010


In spite of the fact that State Lu refused to hire him, Confucius never stopped speaking out his criticism of the current governments and his proposals for a more peaceful world. For example, in an in-house tumult in the neighbouring state, Qi, in 481 BC, the duke was killed by his ministers. Confucius asked State Lu to send troops to condemn this violation of the rites and punish those who were responsible. At the age of seventy one, Confucius went to the duke, and to the three powerful families one by one. He said, “Because I used to work in the government, it is my ritual duty, which I do not dare to ignore, to raise such a formal request to you.” As expected, his request was declined. Confucius did not know that this event of ritual violation would be regarded by historians as the prologue to the Warring States Period (476-221 BC).


In his late years, Confucius mainly dedicated his time to education, and editing and compiling ancient Chinese records. The recorded Chinese history, which was confirmed by archaeological findings and accepted by Western historians, starts with the Shang dynasty (1766-1122 BC). Chinese people think their history started with their common ancestor, the Yellow Emperor (?2500 BC). Saga, legends, and fragmentary written records fill up the gap between 2500 and 1766 BC. So many records of different origins presented conflicting stories, full of mistakes and misplacements. The six classics, Collection of Ancient Text, The Rites, Classic of Poetry, The Book of Changes, The Spring and Autumn Annals, and The Book of Music, were all ascribed to Confucius, though The Book of Music was lost afterwards.


According to Historical Records, there were as many as three thousand poems but Confucius edited and compiled them into the present collection of 305 poems in total. Since hardly any ancient poems have survived today except those 305 poems, Chinese scholars believe that Confucius did not discard any one of those three thousand poems. He only dismissed repetitious ones. It was therefore not an easy job to pick out those 305 poems among the three thousand pieces. Confucius also compiled all the music to accompany those poems. Furthermore, Confucius studied those poems and sang those songs to enrich his soul of a perfect gentleman. He hoped that those six classics would cleanse the souls of the Chinese people and become the foundation of an eternal harmonious world.


The Spring and Autumn Annals were the historical records kept by State Lu, and it covers 242 years of history from 722 to 481 BC. The final year, 481 BC, was only two years before Confucius’ death. During that year, hunters shot dead an unusual animal which they brought up to show the knowledgeable Confucius. It was an auspicious legendary animal, the kylin or Chinese unicorn. Confucius took the tragic death of such an animal as an ominous sign for the world and for himself as well. He thus stopped The Spring and Autumn Annals the same year.


Confucius edited those records strictly according to the requirement of rites. For example, the ruler of State Chu named himself the king. Confucius changed it to duke whenever the name of a king of State Cu was mentioned. In 632 BC, the hegemony state, Jin, held an international conference and asked the King of Chou to attend. The King did attend as requested but Confucius says, in his edited version of The Spring and Autumn Annals, “The King of Chou went there on a tour of inspection.” Thus Confucius said, “People will know me only through The Spring and Autumn Annals, and those who condemn me will do so only because of The Spring and Autumn Annals.” (Meng Tzu, Tengwengongxia)


Confucius was very fond of The Book of Changes or I Ching in his later years. During Confucius’ time, books were copied on bamboo strips, and those strips had holes on both ends to be strung together on leather strips. Confucius read his copy of The Book of Changes so many times that those leather strips were worn out and broken three times. Once he said, “If Heaven lends me a few more years, I will study The Book of Changes, and I will then be able to make hardly any errors.” (7:17)


Confucius’ only son died in 483 BC, and his wife had died when Confucius was still abroad in 485 BC. To make matters worse, his favourite disciple, Yanhui, died in 482 BC. In 480 BC, Confucius’ most loyal disciple, Zilu, was killed in a violent internal conflict. As one can imagine, Confucius felt very sad upon their deaths. Hearing of Yanhui’s death, Confucius cried out involuntarily, “Heaven puts me to death!” “Since Yanhui came to me, the relationship among my disciples has been closer and friendlier.”


After Confucius fell sick himself, one of his disciples, Gong, came to see him while he was strolling on a walking stick in front of his house. Confucius said, “Why did you come so late?” He then sighed and chanted to himself, “Is the Mountain Tai so to collapse? Is the roof beam so to break? Is the Sage Philosopher so to die?” Tears streamed down from his eyes. Confucius died seven days later in April 479 BC.


In mourning Confucius’ death, the Duke of Lu wrote his funeral prayer (? on a cloth), “Why was Heaven not kind enough to spare such an old gentleman, who has left me alone on the throne with pains and sorrows. What grief I am in! Master, do not restrain yourself.” Confucius’ disciple Gong was not happy, complaining, “It does not fit in the requirement of rites to offer such prayers after his death while refusing to hire him when he was alive.”


Many of his disciples lived beside Confucius’ tomb for three years as the funeral of the time required. One disciple, Gong, lived beside Confucius’ tomb for six years. More than a hundred families decided to live there forever, and they formed the town, named after Confucius, Kongli, or the Confucius Neighbourhood. (The End)