Ancient History & Civilisation


1. The Sage in Search of a State

Birth and youth—Marriage and divorce—Pupils and methods—Appearance and character—The lady and the tiger—A definition of good government—Confucius in office—Wander-years—The consolations of old age

K’ung-fu-tze—K’ung the Master, as his pupils called K’ung Ch’iu—was born at Ch’ufu, in the then kingdom of Lu and the present province of Shantung, in the year 551 B.C. Chinese legend, not to be outdone by any rival lore, tells how apparitions announced his illegitimate birth63 to his young mother, how dragons kept watch, and spirit-ladies perfumed the air, as she was delivered of him in a cave. He had, we are informed, the back of a dragon, the lips of an ox, and a mouth like the sea.64 He came of the oldest family now in existence, for (the Chinese genealogists assure us) he was derived in direct line from the great emperor Huang-ti, and was destined to be the father of a long succession of K’ungs, unbroken to this day. His descendants numbered eleven thousand males a century ago; the town of his birth is still populated almost entirely by the fruit of his loins—or those of his only son; and one of his progeny is Finance Minister of the present Chinese Government at Nanking.65

His father was seventy years old when K’ung was born,66 and died when the boy was three. Confucius worked after school to help support his mother, and took on in childhood, perhaps, that aged gravity which was to mark nearly every step of his history. Nevertheless he had time to become skilled in archery and music; to the latter he became so addicted that once, hearing an especially delectable performance, he was moved to the point of vegetarianism: for three months he did not eat meat.67 He did not immediately agree with Nietzsche about a certain incompatibility between philosophy and marriage. He married at nineteen, divorced his wife at twenty-three, and does not seem to have married again.

At twenty-two he began his career as a teacher, using his home as a schoolhouse, and charging whatever modest fee his pupils could pay. Three subjects formed the substance of his curriculum: history, poetry, and the rules of propriety. “A man’s character,” he said, “is formed by the Odes, developed by the Rites” (the rules of ceremony and courtesy), “and perfected by music.”68 Like Socrates he taught by word of mouth rather than by writing, and we know his views chiefly through the unreliable reports of his disciples. He gave to philosophers an example seldom heeded—to attack no other thinker, and waste no time in refutations. He taught no strict logical method, but he sharpened the wits of his students by gently exposing their fallacies, and making stern demands upon their alertness of mind. “When a man is not (in the habit of) saying, ‘What shall I think of this? What shall I think of this?’ I can indeed do nothing with him.”69 “I do not open up the truth to one who is not eager, nor help out any one who is not anxious to explain himself. When I have presented one corner of a subject to any one, and he cannot from it learn the other three, I do not repeat my lesson.”70 He was confident that only the wisest and the stupidest were beyond benefiting from instruction, and that no one could sincerely study humanistic philosophy without being improved in character as well as in mind. “It is not easy to find a man who has learned for three years without coming to be good.”71

He had at first only a few pupils, but soon the news went about that behind the lips of an ox and the mouth like a sea there was a kindly heart and a well-furnished mind, and in the end he could boast that three thousand young men had studied under him, and had passed from his home to important positions in the world. Some of the students—once as many as seventy—lived with him like Hindu novices with their guru; and they developed an affection that often spoke out in their remonstrances against his exposure of his person to danger, or of his good name to calumny. Though always strict with them, he loved some of them more than his own son, and wept without measure when Hwuy died. “There was Yen Hwuy,” he replied to Duke Gae, who had asked which of his pupils learned best; “he loved to learn. . . . I have not yet heard of any one who loves to learn (as he did). . . . Hwuy gave me no assistance; there was nothing that I said which did not give him delight. . . . He did not transfer his anger; he did not repeat a fault. Unfortunately, his appointed time was short, and he died; and now there is not (such another).”72 Lazy students avoided him, or received short shrift from him; for he was not above instructing a sluggard with a blow of his staff, and sending him off with merciless verity. “Hard is the case of him who will stuff himself with food the whole day, without applying his mind to anything. . . . In youth not humble as befits a junior; in manhood doing nothing worthy of being handed down; and living on to an old age—this is to be a pest.”73

He must have made a queer picture as he stood in his rooms, or, with nearly equal readiness, in the road, and taught his disciples history and poetry, manners and philosophy. The portraits that Chinese painters begot of him show him in his later years, with an almost hairless head gnarled and knotted with experience, and a face whose terrifying seriousness gave no inkling of the occasional humor and tenderness, and the keen esthetic sensitivity, that made him human despite his otherwise unbearable perfection. One of his music-teachers described him as he was in early middle age:

I have observed about Chung-ni many marks of a sage. He has river eyes and a dragon forehead—the very characteristics of Huangti. His arms are long, his back is like a tortoise, and he is nine (Chinese) feet six inches in height. . . . When he speaks he praises the ancient kings. He moves along the path of humility and courtesy. He has heard of every subject, and retains with a strong memory. His knowledge of things seems inexhaustible. Have we not in him the rising of a sage?74

Legend assigns to his figure “forty-nine remarkable peculiarities.” Once, when accident had separated him from his disciples during his wanderings, they located him at once by the report of a traveler that he had seen a monstrous-looking man with “the disconsolate appearance of a stray dog.” When they repeated this description to Confucius he was much amused. “Capital!” he said, “capital!”75

He was an old-fashioned teacher, who believed that the maintenance of distance was indispensable to pedagogy. He was nothing if not formal, and the rules of etiquette and courtesy were his meat and drink. He tried to check and balance the natural epicureanism of the instincts with the puritanism and stoicism of his doctrine. At times he appears to have indulged himself in self-appreciation. “In a hamlet of ten families,” he said, with some moderation, “there may be found one honorable and sincere as I am, but not so fond of learning.”76 “In letters I am perhaps equal to other men, but (the character of) the higher man, carrying out in his conduct what he professes, is what I have not yet attained to.”77 “If there were any of the princes who would employ me, in the course of twelve months I should have done something considerable. In three years (the government) would be perfected.”78 All in all, however, he bore his greatness with modesty. “There were four things,” his disciples assure us, “from which the Master was entirely free. He had no foregone conclusions, no arbitrary predeterminations, no obstinacy, and no egoism.”79 He called himself “a transmitter and not a maker,”80 and pretended that he was merely passing down what he had learned from the good emperors Yao and Shun. He strongly desired fame and place, but he would make no dishonorable compromises to secure or retain them; again and again he refused appointments to high office from men whose government seemed to him unjust. A man should say, he counseled his scholars, “I am not concerned that I have no place; I am concerned how I may fit myself for one. I am not concerned that I am not known; I seek to be worthy to be known.”81

Among his pupils were the sons of Mang He, one of the ministers of the Duke of Lu. Through them Confucius was introduced to the Chou court at Lo-yang; but he kept a modest distance from the officials, preferring, as we have seen, to visit the dying sage Lao-tze. Returning to Lu, Confucius found his native province so disordered with civil strife that he removed to the neighboring state of T’si, accompanied by several of his pupils. Passing through rugged and deserted mountains on their way, they were surprised to find an old woman weeping beside a grave. Confucius sent Tsze-loo to inquire the cause of her grief. “My husband’s father,” she answered, “was killed here by a tiger, and my husband also; and now my son has met the same fate.” When Confucius asked why she persisted in living in so dangerous a place, she replied: “There is no oppressive government here.” “My children,” said Confucius to his students, “remember this. Oppressive government is fiercer than a tiger.”82

The Duke of Ts’i gave him audience, and was pleased with his answer to a question about good government. “There is good government when the prince is prince, and the minister is minister; when the father is father, and the son is son/’83 The Duke offered him for his support the revenues of the town of Lin-k’ew, but Confucius refused the gift, saying that he had done nothing to deserve such remuneration. The Duke was minded to insist on retaining him as an adviser, when his chief minister dissuaded him. “These scholars,” said Gan Ying, “are impractical, and cannot be imitated. They are haughty and conceited of their own views, so that they will not be content in inferior positions. . . . This Mr. K’ung has a thousand peculiarities. It would take generations to exhaust all that he knows about the ceremonies of going up and going down.”84 Nothing came of it, and Confucius returned to Lu, to teach his pupils for fifteen years more before being called into public office.

His opportunity came when, at the turn of the century, he was made chief magistrate of the town of Chung-tu. According to Chinese tradition a veritable epidemic of honesty swept through the city; articles of value dropped in the street were left untouched, or returned to the owner.85Promoted by Duke Ting of Lu to be Acting Superintendent of Public Works, Confucius directed a survey of the lands of the state, and introduced many improvements in agriculture. Advanced again to be Minister of Crime, his appointment, we are told, sufficed of itself to put an end to crime. “Dishonesty and dissoluteness,” say the Chinese records, “were ashamed, and hid their heads. Loyalty and good faith became the characteristics of the men, and chastity and docility those of the women. Strangers came in crowds from other states. Confucius became the idol of the people.”86

This is too good to be true, and in any case proved too good to endure. Criminals put their hidden heads together, no doubt, and laid snares for the Master’s feet. Neighboring states, say the historian, grew jealous of Lu, and fearful of its rising power. A wily minister of Ts’i suggested a stratagem to alienate the Duke of Lu from Confucius. The Duke of Ts’i sent to Ting a bevy of lovely “sing-song” girls, and one hundred and twenty still more beautiful horses. The Duke of Lu was captivated, ignored the disapproval of Confucius (who had taught him that the first principle of good government is good example), and scandalously neglected his ministers and the affairs of the state. “Master,” said Tsze-loo, “it is time for you to be going.” Reluctantly Confucius resigned, left Lu, and began thirteen years of homeless wandering. He remarked later that he had never “seen one who loves virtue as he loves beauty,”87 and indeed, from some points of view, it is one of the most culpable oversights of nature that virtue and beauty so often come in separate packages.

The Master and a few faithful disciples, no longer welcome in his native state, passed now from province to province, receiving courtesies in some, undergoing dangers and privations in others. Twice they were attacked by ruffians, and once they were reduced almost to starvation, so that even Tsze-loo began to murmur that such a lot was hardly appropriate to the “higher man.” The Duke of Wei offered Confucius the leadership of his government, but Confucius, disapproving of the Duke’s principles, refused.88 Once, as the little band was traveling through Ts’i, it came upon two old men who, in disgust with the corruption of the age, had retired like Lao-tze from public affairs and taken to a life of agricultural seclusion. One of them recognized Confucius, and reproached Tsze-loo for following him. “Disorder, like a swelling flood,” said the recluse, “spreads over the whole empire; and who is he that will change it for you? Rather than follow one who withdraws from this state and that state, had you not better follow those who withdraw from the world altogether?”89 Confucius gave much thought to this rebuke, but persisted in hoping that some state would again give him an opportunity to lead the way to reform and peace.

At last, in the sixty-ninth year of Confucius, Duke Gae succeeded to the throne of Lu, and sent three officers to the philosopher, bearing appropriate presents and an invitation to return to his native state. During the five years of life that remained to him Confucius lived in simplicity and honor, often consulted by the leaders of Lu, but wisely retiring to a literary seclusion, and devoting himself to the congenial work of editing the classics, and writing the history, of his people. When the Duke of Shi asked Tsze-loo about his master, and Tsze-loo did not answer him, Confucius, hearing of it, said: “Why did you not say to him?—He is simply a man who, in his eager pursuit of knowledge, forgets his food; who in the joy (of its attainment) forgets his sorrows; and who does not perceive that old age is coming on.”90 He consoled his solitude with poetry and philosophy, and rejoiced that his instincts now accorded with his reason. “At fifteen,” he said, “I had my mind bent on learning. At thirty I stood firm. At forty I was free from doubt. At fifty I knew the decrees of Heaven. At sixty my ear was an obedient organ for the reception of truth. At seventy I could follow what my heart desired without transgressing what was right.”91

He died at the age of seventy-two. Early one morning he was heard singing a mournful song:

The great mountain must crumble,

The strong beam must break,

And the wise man wither away like a plant.

When his pupil Tsze-kung came to him he said: “No intelligent monarch arises; there is not one in the empire that will make me his master. My time is come to die.”92 He took to his couch, and after seven days he expired. His students buried him with pomp and ceremony befitting their affection for him; and building huts by his grave they lived there for three years, mourning for him as for a father. When all the others had gone Tsze-kung, who had loved him even beyond the rest, remained three years more, mourning alone by the Master’s tomb.93

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