Confucius (孔夫子)

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  • Quote of Confucius about learning

子曰﹕學而時習之,不亦說乎?

Zǐ yuē, “xué ér shí xí zhī, bù yì yuè hū?”

The Master said, ‘Is it not a pleasure, having learned something, to try it out at due intervals?’ (The Analects, I.1)

One would be hard pressed to identify a more readily recognizable figure in Chinese history than Confucius—his ideas, as transmitted in the Analects and some other documents and then later elaborated upon by other philosophers (such as Mencius and Xunzi), have profoundly shaped Chinese civilization and culture. Given his imposing stature in Chinese history, it is somewhat ironic how little verifiable information is actually known to historians and scholars about the historical Confucius; much of what is commonly presumed about Confucius in the public imagination is distorted by centuries of accumulated legend, veneration, and iconography. The spring 2010 China Institute exhibition, Confucius: His Life and Legacy in Art, assembles a collection of visual representations of Confucius informed by such veneration as well as presenting objects related to the state cult that grew up around him. These exhibition-related web pages are designed to give audiences a brief introduction to five different thematic approaches to studying Confucius in order to help answer some essential questions:

  • What do we know about Confucius, the man?
  • What was the social and political context that shaped him and that his ideas respond to?
  • What did he do in life, and how has that subsequently been recorded, appreciated, and criticized in art and literature?

The name “Confucius” is a Latinization of Kongfuzi (孔夫子), or “Master Kong.” His given name is Qiu Zhongni (邱仲尼) and he lived in the small state of Lu between 551-479 BCE (the area of Lu is in today’s province of Shandong). What in the west goes by the name “Confucianism” is really a doctrinal tradition that in Chinese is called “rujia” (儒家) or “rujiao” (儒教), the school or tradition of scholars. Confucius was a scholar who studied the past in order to find meanings for promoting social harmony in a society increasingly fractured by warfare and factionalism.

The material provided here on China360 aims to provide a brief introduction to Confucius and his times in order to better appreciate the art featured in the China Institute Gallery Spring 2010 exhibition, Confucius: His Life and Legacy in Art. We hope the information provided here will be the springboard for further investigation into one of humanity’s most influential thinkers. There is much scholarship and debate around Confucius and Confucianism that simply cannot be covered in these pages, but we provide suggested resources for continued study of Confucius and invite you to post comments and other suggestions as well. As The Analects itself opens with, “is it not a pleasure, having learned something, to try it out at due intervals? (I.1)” We hope you agree and enjoy learning more about Confucius, his times, and his legacy, and to deploy that learning in due time.

To fully appreciate historical temporality from a Confucian perspective, one should be prepared to engage Chinese principles of recording historical time based on dynastic cycles rather than the Gregorian calendar system used universally today and designated by BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era). While not entirely free of contested dating, the Chinese historical records were meticulously kept and carefully reconstructed throughout history. Archaeological finds continue to fill out a more complete understanding of very early times, but starting from the Zhou Dynasty, there is extremely reputable scholarship that provides very precise historical dating of events before and during Confucius’ lifetime. This timeline is provided to help contextualize major periods and specific events that are significant to Confucius’ life.

Before 2070 BC

Legendary time of the Three Sovereigns and the Five Emperors.

c. 2070 -1600 BC

Legendary Xia Dynasty – a proto-dynasty that left no written records, but whose existence is attested to by early Chinese thinkers and whose ancestors have the Shang acknowledge in their later divinatory bone inscriptions

c. 1600 – 1045 BCE

Shang Dynasty – a line of 29 kings (wang) who rule for around 500 years over a small but strategically important state situated in the central plains. Important contributions to the development of Chinese civilization include a calendar based on astronomical observation; a hierarchical society codified in a system of rites in which the king assumes the role of intermediary between the living and the dead, or between heaven and earth; development of bronze technology geared to manufacturing ceremonial artifacts; and the development of a written language.

c. 1045 – 771 BC

Western Zhou Dynasty – succeeding the Shang, the Zhou people adopted and then modified Shang practices in ancestor worship, patrilineal succession, bone divination, and social stratification. A people residing in the Wei River valley (in an area around presnt day Xi’an), the king takes a reign-name of Wen (‘cultured’) who begins attacking a number of small Shang vassal states. After King Wen’s death c. 1053 BCE, his son, King Wu (‘martial’) resumes wars against the Shang and engages the Shang army at the decisive battle at Muye outside the Shang Court of Anyang in 1045 BCE, thus founding the Zhou Dynasty.

c. 1043 BCE – Zhou King Wu dies setting off a concession crisis. King Wu’s younger brother, Zhou Gong Dan (aka The Duke of Zhou), has his young nephew King Cheng enthroned and becomes regent to the King. The Duke’s other brothers (and the overthrown Shang king’s surviving son) join forces and attempt to overthrow the patrilineal line of succession. They are defeated in the civil war that follows and surrounding polities are drawn into the conflict resulting in an expansion of territory under Zhou authority. Loyal Zhou princes are rewarded with state-sized fiefdoms creating a large federation of states pledging loyalty to the Zhou king; the cohesion of these feudal-like states will dissipate over time.

771 BCE – The Quan Rong (a nothern ‘barbarian’ tribe of nomadic people) sack the capital of Zongzhou (in the west near modern day Xi’an) and force the Court of Zhou to be reconstituted at Chengzhou (in the east near modern day Luoyang).

771 – 256 BC

Eastern Zhou Dynasty – the Zhou court is significantly weakened and China becomes a land of contending small states run by hegemons who nominally pledge loyalty to the Zhou court but are guided by self-interest and opportunism to increase their territory. While politically a very chaotic time, it is also marked by a cultural and technological flourishing. China’s first canal systems, its first large-scale walls, and large-scale irrigation projects date from this period. It is also a period of great intellectual activity known for the ‘Hundred Schools of Thought’ (including, of course, Confucianism), a name for the numerous political, social, and cosmological theories that proliferated during this period.

722 – 476 BCE – Spring and Autumn Period, a further division of the Eastern Zhou period; the name derives from The Spring and Autumn Annals, a chronicle of events in the state of Lu sometimes ascribed to Confucius.

551 BCE – birth of Confucius at Mount Ni, located southeast of Qufu in Lu state (in present-day Shandong province), traditionally accepted as being on September 28.

549 BCE – When Confucius is three years old, his father dies.

535 BCE – Confucius’ mother dies when he is the age of 16 or 17 (other sources give this date as 527 BCE, when he was 23 or 24 years old).

533 BCE – At the age of 19, Confucius marries a woman from the Qiguan family of the Song state. Around this time, he gained employment as manager of the state granary.

532 BCE – Birth of Confucius’ sib who is named Li (Carp) after Duke Zhao of Lu sent a carp as a gift. Around this time Confucius was promoted to state husbandry manager.

522 BCE – Around this time Confucius starts a private school and began to teach.

518 BCE – Confucius accepts Meng Yizi and Nangong Jinshu as disciples; Jinshu arranges for Confucius to travel to Luoyang, the Zhou capital, where he is attributed as meeting Laozi.

514 BCE – After conflict breaks out in Lu state, Confucius is forced to relocate briefly to the state of Qi.

516 BCE – Confucius returns to Lu.

501 BCE – Confucius became the chief magistrate of Zhongdu, present-day Wenshang county in Shandong Province.

500 BCE – Confucius becomes minister of justice and distinguishes himself at the conference between Lu and Qi at Jiagu.

497 BCE – Confucius leaves the state of Lu and heads east to Wei state, beginning his sojourns in several states to promote his ideas.

484 BCE – Confucius returned to his hometown, Qufu, in the state of Lu and focused on teaching and studying the Rites of Zhou.

479 BCE – Death of Confucius at the age of 72 or 73.

475 – 221 BCE – Warring States Period, a further layer of periodization within the Eastern Zhou Dynasty marked by large-scale intense warfare made possible by administrative reforms designed to maximize individual states’ ability to raise armies.

221 – 206 BC

Qin Dynasty – the western state of Qin eventually defeats and occupies all other states and King Zheng succeeds in unifying the territory and proclaims himself Shihuangdi, of ‘First Emperor.’ The empire adopts draconian legalist administration and is attributed with burning Confucian texts and killing Confucian scholars. At the same time, the Qin Dynasty unifies weights and measurements, promulgates a standard written script, as well as a standard monetary system. Nevertheless, the state is very unpopular and is overthrown by forces only fifteen years after its founding.

206 BCE – 9 CE

Western Han Dynasty – in 207 BCE, Liu Bang, a minor official of peasant stock (and one-time outlaw) creates a sizeable following and joins forces with an anti-Qin army led by Xiang Yu, an aristocrat from the former state of Chu. After jointly defeating and killing off the Qin royal family, the combined forces split and a power struggle ensues. Liu Bang eventually wins out and is enthroned as Emperor Gaodi of the Han Dynasty. The historian Sima Qian wrote of Liu Bang, “[he] removed the harsh corners of the Qin code and retreated to an easy roundness, whittled away the embellishments and achieved simplicity.” It is during the Western Han Dynasty that Confucian values are increasingly promoted by the state, evidenced by the court-sponsored study group to furnish acceptable versions of the five prescribed classics in 136 BCE (The Book of Documents, The Book of Songs, The Book of Changes, TheSpring and Autumn Annals, and The Book of Rites).

The Master wanted to settle amongst the Nine Barbarian Tribes of the east. Someone said, ‘But could you put up with their uncouth ways?’

The Master said, ‘Once a gentleman settles amongst them, what uncouthness will there be?” (The Analects, IX.14)

Compared to contemporary China, the territory under the Zhou (周) dynasty domain at its peak was quite modest, stretching southward to the Yangzi River from present day Hebei, and westward to the eastern tip of modern Sichuan. It was a relatively small portion of the political territory we associate with China today. Even so, by Confucius’ time (551 – 479 B.C.E.), after five centuries in power, the Zhou dynasty had become increasingly fragmented into a diverse political geography of independent states, controlled by feudal dukes, who exerted political and military might over their own domains and paid only symbolic homage to the Zhou king. These dukes, in an increasing fashion, often went so far as to bestow upon themselves the title of king (wang 王) and, much to Confucius’ dismay, often undertook prominent roles in the Zhou rites and ceremonies traditionally reserved exclusively for the Zhou kings. In the language of the time, these states are tellingly referred to as guo (國), often translated into English as ‘country,’ implying political sovereignty. The term is applied to China in the present day: zhongguo (中國).

In his home state of Lu (魯), located in modern Shandong province, Confucius witnessed first-hand the devolution of authority from the Zhou king to the regional dukes. This political environment, marked by increased military competition between states for hegemony, provided the historical context for Confucius’ campaign for greater social and political morality that could reunite the region into a single sociopolitical unit reminiscent of the halcyon early days of the Zhou dynasty. According to Confucius, the solution lay in a benevolent ruler, an exemplary gentleman who would inspire benevolence in his people. In 497 BCE, at the age of fifty-four, the great philosopher embarked on a fourteen year sojourn through the neighboring states of Wei (衛), Song (宋), Cai (蔡), Chu (楚), and Cao (曹) – collectively located in the present day regions of Henan, Hubei and Anhui provinces – in search of such a ruler. He never found one. Instead, hardship and danger often awaited him among the bellicose people living in these parts.

In the painting K’uang People Raising the Siege from the Ming dynasty illustrated biography of Confucius, Pictures of the Sage’s Traces, Confucius and his disciples are attacked by a horde of such people. The painting captures the moment of Confucius’ response to the onslaught, a well-known episode corroborated by a passage in The Analects:

子畏於匡,曰:”文王既沒,文不在茲乎。天之將喪斯文也,後死者不得與於斯文也;天之未喪斯文也,匡人其如予何!”
zǐ wèi yú kuāng, yuē: “Wén Wáng jì méi, wén bù zài cí hū. tiān zhī jiāng sàng sī wén yě, hòu sǐ zhě bù dé yǔ yú sī wén yě; tiān zhī wèi sàng sī wén yě, kuāng rén qí rú yú hé!”
When under siege in K’uang,

the Master said, ‘With King Wen dead is not culture (wen) invested here in me? If Heaven intends culture to be destroyed, those who come after me will not be able to have any part of it. If Heaven does not intend this culture to be destroyed, then what can the men of K’uang do to me?’ (The Analects, IX.5)

At the same time that the scene in K’uang People Raising the Siege is a visual reminder of the difficult political geography of Confucius’ time, the excerpt from The Analects presents us with a cosmological relationship between the will of Heaven and humankind, introducing yet another meaning to the geographical order of Confucius’ world. To appreciate fully Confucius’ response to the men of Kuang, we must keep in mind the Chinese ideas of the interconnections between Heaven (tian 天), Earth (di 地), and Man or Person (ren 人). This crucial order, an expansion of the familial and political relationships central to Confucian doctrine, is maintained through the correct observance of the sacred rites, the culture to which Confucius was referring.

While the will of Heaven, it seems, intended Confucius to survive the siege of Kuang, the great sage ultimately died in 484 BCE, as the Spring and Autumn Period was transitioning into an era of intensified military competition. The subsequent era, known as the Warring States Period, lasted over two hundred years until the king of Qin (秦) crowned himself Emperor of a newly unified China, taking the name The First Emperor of Qin (Qin Shi Huangdi 秦始皇帝), now famous around the world for the terracotta funerary army that guards his necropolis outside Xi’an. While Shi Huangdi condemned the Confucian school of thought, imperial decree of the Han (漢) emperors (206 BCE – 220 CE) began promulgating Confucian thought, spreading Confucianism much further than Confucius could have imagined during those treacherous, difficult years searching the timeless land of China.

The Master said, “ A man is worthy of being a teacher who gets to know what is new by keeping fresh in his mind what he is already familiar with.” (The Analects, II.11)

Since the Age of Enlightenment when Confucian philosophy was first studied in depth by European thinkers such as Voltaire (1694-1778) and Thomas Paine (1737-1809), Confucius has personified the West’s imagination of China. Today, evidence of Confucius’s legacy is ubiquitous in our daily life – from fortune cookie sayings to Presidential oratory. During his historical town hall style meeting in Shanghai on November 16, 2009, President Obama cited a common Chinese proverb adopted from The Analects, wenguzhixin (温故知新): “Consider the past and you shall know the future.” (White House press release, November 16, 2009).

The Master said, ” A man is worthy of being a teacher who gets to know what is new by keeping fresh in his mind what he is already familiar with.” (The Analects, II.11)

An idealized portrait of Confucius even appears on the façade of the U.S. Supreme Court building, known in American history as the Temple of Justice.

A marble frieze on the temple’s south wall depicts an imaginary procession of nine historical lawmakers from different civilizations Before the Common Era; they are arranged in chronological sequence and grouped by four allegorical figures representing fame, authority, light of wisdom, and history. Confucius (551-497 BCE) is juxtaposed between Draco (Greek, 7th century BCE) and Augustus (Roman, 1st century BCE) in the final group; together the triad exemplifies the humanistic developments of philosophy and history in the ancient world.

According to historical records, Confucius was active in the final years of the tumultuous period known as chunqiu 春秋. The term chunqiu literally means Spring and Autumn and derives from the title of a contemporary historical text. The text is organized as an annalistic compilation documenting important affairs, both internal and external, of the state of Lu (鲁) from 722 to 481 BCE. The Spring and Autumn period was a hegemonic world – a political system of decentralization in which powerful feudal lords, known as hegemons ba (霸) – acted as de facto rulers while maintaining nominal and ritualistic loyalty to the ancient royal house of Zhou. For this reason the Spring and Autumn period is often referred to as the first half of the Eastern Zhou dynasty.

The ancient Lu state roughly corresponds to the modern province Shandong on China’s northeastern coast and they share the same capital, Qufu (曲阜). Qufu was also the birthplace of Confucius and has been a traditional epicenter of intellectual activities of the Confucian school of thought since his lifetime. The life of Confucius in many ways reflects the history of his native state of Lu. Born into an extinguished noble family in a state on the wane, Confucius was an inevitable product of his time, a transitional phase when ritualized warfare and political intrigues among the hegemonic states would eventually degenerate into complete anarchy, known as the Warring States period zhanguo (戰 國). While the history of the Warring States is characterized by unsanctioned violence at massive scales – genocides of peoples and cultures were commonplace – it was also an unprecedented time of robust intellectual activities and technological advancements. Because of his posthumous fame, Confucius is commonly viewed as the seminal prototype to later thinkers of the so-called “Hundred Schools,” who flourished during the Warring States period.

In life, Confucius was one among many talented men in a rapidly expanding diplomatic corps searching to serve a worthy master – for Confucius the ideal ruler was characterized by an unchallenged moral character and he who governs by benevolence. What distinguishes Confucius from his contemporaries is his legacy as the teacher par excellence to a large school of worthy disciples, who recorded, compiled, and transmitted his teachings in The Analects. Despite a lofty reputation as one of the greatest lawmakers in world history, the highlight of Confucius’s career in public service was as the police commissioner of the state of Lu. It is in this post that Confucius first achieved fame as a deft advisor at the Summit at Jiagu, a historical event illustrated in this painting. According to the colophon:

In the tenth year of the reign of Duke Ding of Lu state (r. 509 -494 BCE), the lords of the Qi and Lu states conferred at Jiagu to negotiate a potential alliance. Confucius was in charge of the ceremonial proceedings on behalf of the embassy from Lu. During the summit, the embassy of the Qi state played music native to the uncivilized tribes. Confucius admonished: “Why play the music of the barbarians when the lords of two civilized states are conferring to build everlasting friendship? It is requested that elegant music appropriate for court be played!” The Qi embassy continued to play barbarian music. Confucius again admonished: “Those who humiliate Duke Ding of Lu on this solemn occasion must be executed! It is requested that proper punishment be carried out!” His call for adherence to decorum shamed the lord of the Qi state. Driven to regret the impropriety demonstrated by his embassy, the lord of the Qi state returned lands that were once seized from the state of Lu and offered an apology.”

This story provides an apt description of the political environment of the Spring and Autumn period, when feudal lords maintained ducal titles so as not to violate their nominal loyalty to the Zhou royalty and engaged not in overt warfare, but convert political intrigues of shifting alliances. This painting depicts a hegemonic world when rulers of states still engaged each other in a ritualistic manner and tolerated expectations of propriety to maintain a semblance of order. This historical context helps us better understand the inceptive rationale of Confucian philosophy, for Confucius was witness to a regressing humanity at a historical precipice. Confucianism was, in its primordial form, a sage’s attempt to save his fellow men from their inevitable demise.

“Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire” (The Analects, XII.2)

Confucius (551-479 BCE) lived and taught during the late Spring and Autumn Period (春秋時代, chunqiu shidai), a time of fragmentation and social upheaval in Chinese history, as states struggled against one another to maintain and expand control. In response to the chaos he witnessed, Confucius traveled from state to state, hoping to find a leader willing to take him on as a government official, and to practice his doctrine of proper conduct and governance. Confucius did not see himself as an innovator, but rather as a transmitter of knowledge (The Analects, VII.1). He sought to guide people to the traditions and ideas of a past golden age exemplified by the ancient sage rulers, Yao (堯), Shun (舜), and Yu (禹), the last being the legendary founder of the Xia (夏) dynasty. It is in this context that Confucius formulated his theory of the junzi (君子), typically translated as “gentleman,” “profound person,” “exemplary person,” or “nobleman.”

The original meaning and literal translation of junzi is “the son of nobility.” For Confucius, such a person would not necessarily need to be of noble birth, but would have to be of the highest moral character, and put into practice the philosophy transmitted by Confucius. Such a person would have to uphold proper observance of the rites (禮, li), assume the duties and responsibilities of his role in the family and clan structure by exhibiting filial piety (孝, xiao), be loyal to the sovereign (忠, zhong), and inspire others through his exemplary force of virtue (德, de). Though humble in nature, a junzi achieves a superior sense of self and his duties and obligations to family and society at large. The image above, taken from a Ming (明) Dynasty pictorial biography of Confucius’ life, depicts Confucius teaching the Book of Rites (禮記, liji) to his disciples at the apricot pavilion in his hometown of Qufu (曲阜).

The Confucian principal that guides a junzi‘s proper interaction with those not directly related to him is that of ren (仁), sometimes translated as “benevolence,” or “compassion.” It is the concept of ren that ensures that those striving to reach the level of the junzi do not become consumed by self-righteousness. Cultivating ren requires “unbending strength, resoluteness, simplicity and reticence” (The Analects, XIII.27). For the junzi, ren is the highest ideal and he not only strives to incorporate it into all his actions, but he should also be willing to give up his life for it, “For gentlemen of purpose and men of benevolence while it is inconceivable that they should seek to stay alive at the expense of benevolence, it may happen that they have to accept death in order to have benevolence accomplished” (The Analects, XV.9). The humility that ren requires is expressed above all in the golden rule, “do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire” (The Analects, XII.2). This concept applies to familial relationships, as well as informs the general mode of proper interaction between an individual and society.

A true understanding of ren is predicated on forming a complete understanding of oneself. Without understanding and transforming himself, a man cannot begin to understand how that self fits into society. However, it is not through solitary self-introspection that one develops a deeper sense of self, but, as illustrated in the image above, through interaction with family and community. The image above takes place in Qufu, where Confucius returned after years of travel, and where he continued instructing his disciples, encouraging discovery through scholarly debate and interpersonal interactions.

While Confucius sought to inspire others through his teachings and example, he denied having achieved the status of a junzi himself, “There are three things constantly on the lips of the gentleman none of which I have succeeded in following: ‘A man of benevolence never worries; a man of wisdom is never in two minds; a man of courage is never afraid” (The Analects, XIV.28). Embodying the principals of the junzi is an ideal one must constantly strive for, but which few ever obtain.

The study of material culture is a modern academic field that considers artifacts as a primary source of information of the culture in or for which they were produced. When examined by specialists, primarily archaeologists, sociologists, and art historians, objects from the past help modern researchers form meaningful inquires and develop interpretations of the cultures that produced them. This exhibition, Confucius: His Life and Legacy in Art, presents a varied ensemble of artifacts from a sprawling history of more than two millennia – from the inception of Confucianism as the personal teachings of an itinerant sage in a deteriorating hegemonic world to its final halcyon days as the statecraft of China’s last emperors.

This painting Learning Rites from Lao Dan is valuable on two levels – as a product of the material culture of Confucianism and as a study of the material culture of Confucianism at a specific point in time. Painted in polychrome on silk, this painting is one in a folio of thirty-six leafs collectively known as Pictures of the Sage’s Traces, produced in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 CE).
According to the colophon, the painting depicts a meeting between Confucius and Laozi:

In the 24th year of the reign of Duke Zhao of Lu state (518 BCE), Confucius brought his disciple Nangong Jingshu from Qufu to Luoyi. They traveled a great distance so that they could learn about the rites of Zhou from Lao Dan (Laozi), who was a keeper of archives at the royal court of Zhou.

During the Ming dynasty, the dominant intellectual trend was a syncretistic form of Confucianism known as Neo-Confucianism (developed several hundred years earlier during the Song dynasty), which encompassed basic elements of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. A material culture consequently developed from the Neo-Confucian practice of worshipping the respective founders of these three teachings as a hagiographic triad – Confucius, Laozi, and the historical Buddha, Sakamuni. Artifacts from the material culture of Neo-Confucianism were made to propagate this syncretistic hagiography, for which Pictures of the Sage’s Traces is an excellent example.

On the latent level, however, this painting is more than an objet d’art and inspires further academic inquiry. The painting represents an interpretation of the contemporary attitude toward Confucian teachings; in this mode, the painting is a graphic study of how the collective producer of the object, the Ming literati, perceived Confucianism and their role in the context of this tradition. It is at the latent level that this painting is most valuable to modern researchers of the material culture of Confucianism. The painting is in essence, a 17th century graphic interpretation of a 6th century BCE story. The most ostensible feature is the artist’s rendering of Confucius and Laozi in the traditional attire of the literati, a class of scholar-officials that was a product of Confucianism and postdates Confucius by a few hundred years. The artistic choice signifies that the Ming literati perceived Confucius and Laozi as the progenitors of their kind. Further, it can be argued that the painting is an allegory of Neo-Confucian syncretism – the theme of seeking, inquiring, keeping and transmitting knowledge – Confucius representing the seeking and inquiring, and Laozi personifying the keeping and transmitting.

Buddhism, another element in the Neo-Confucian intellectual triad, is manifested in the form of a ruyi, a talismanic scepter intrinsic to the foreign religion, shown as being held in the hands of a figure in a white robe in the foreground of the painting. The ruyi is also an anachronism, as Buddhism was not introduced to China until several hundred years after Confucius’s time. There is an additional anachronistic element in the painting – a stack of bound books printed on paper. During Confucius’s time, writings were recorded on bronze ritual vessels, bamboo strips, wood planks, and silk scrolls. Paper was not invented until the Western Han dynasty (206 BCE-9CE), and the earliest dated evidence of printing is a fragment of the Diamond Sutra, also an artifact of Buddhism, from the late Tang dynasty (618-907 CE).

The discussion so far has focused on the painting as a product and a study of the Neo-Confucian material culture in the Ming dynasty. What then, constitutes the material culture of Confucianism during Confucius’s time? The Analects provides an apt description:

子贡问曰:赐也何如?子曰:女,器也。曰:何器也?曰:瑚琏也。

Zĭgōng wèn yuē: sì yě hé rú? Zĭ yuē: nŭ, qì yě. Yuē: hé qì yě? Yuē: húliăn yě.

Zigong asked, “What do you think of me?”

The Master said, “You are a vessel.”

Zigong asked, “What kind of vessel?”

The Master said, “A sacrificial vessel.” (The Analects, V.2)

Adherence to rituals or sacrifices, li (禮), is an essential principle of Confucianism, particularly during the time of Confucius, when bronze and jade vessels were still widely used in rituals. The Chinese character itself is a graphic study of this material culture – as explained in another section, 禮 is a partial pictogram showing a man carrying a ritual vessel. Three vessels are shown in this painting; the artist uses different colors to suggest that that they are a porcelain cup, a bronze brassier, and a copper-bronze lidded pitcher. It is important, however, to distinguish that the vessels shown in the painting all serve a practical function in daily life, whereas the artifacts from Confucius’s time, shown in this exhibition, were made and used exclusively in rituals associated with ancestral worship. It is in this context that Confucius’s enigmatic response to his disciple Zigong can be deciphered. The key to interpreting this passage lays in the type of the sacrificial vessel that Confucius invokes as a comparison to Zigong, arguably his most inquisitive and capable disciple. The 瑚琏 (pronunciation: hu2lian3) is one of the oldest vessel types associated with ancestral worship for the exclusive use of royalty in pre-imperial times. It was made of jade (as indicated by the commonality of the graphs’ jade radical) and used to contain grains during the rites of Harvest, one of the most important events in agrarian ancient China. By comparing Zigong to one of the most important sacrificial vessels in ancestral worship, it is inferred that Confucius regards Zigong to be capable of serving in a high position at court.

Material culture signifies human response to changing cultural and historical trends. As demonstrated in this brief introduction, material culture in the time of Confucius was widely dissimilar to the material culture of the Neo-Confucians in the Ming dynasty. This exercise helps us, the modern audience, to contextualize the longevity of Confucianism and the legacy of Confucius as the most venerated philosopher in Chinese history.

For a detailed study of some of the objects depicted in this picture, please see the Exhibition Related Materials homepage.

The Master said, “I transmit but do not innovate; I am truthful in what I say and devoted to antiquity.” (The Analects, VII.1)

There are many different ways to approach the topic of how Confucius and the tradition he is associated with are theoretically and morally appreciated. Let us consider first what Confucius is said to have appreciated himself. When Confucius says in The Analects (論語) that he does not innovate but rather transmits, we can begin to understand his reference point for evaluating the ideas and values associated with him. Confucius regarded himself as a custodian of the ceremonial institutions and sacrificial rites inherited from the early days of the Zhou Dynasty (周). He did not see himself as innovating any new ideas or ritualistic behaviors, but rather trying to restore and preserve the social mores established by the founders of the Zhou Dynasty, King Wen (文王) and his son King Wu (武王). Confucius especially revered another of King Wen’s sons, the Duke of Zhou, who became regent for his brother King Wu’s young son (King Cheng, 成王) instead of disrupting the Zhou customs and usurping power for himself. Confucius lived in an age that increasingly neglected the social mores established during the early part of the Zhou Dynasty; he was disturbed by patterns emerging in his time of local strongmen usurping power for themselves and aggrandizing themselves with inappropriate ceremonies. Time and again in The Analects, Confucius advocates a renewed reverence for ancient ritualistic ceremonies as he believed such proper adherence would guarantee harmonious governance.

This devotion to ideas and ceremonies from antiquity informs a Ming Dynasty illustrated biography of Confucius known as Pictures of the Sage’s Traces (Shengji zhitu 聖跡之圖); in the page titled “Imitating Rites by Displaying Sacrificial Utensils,” the illustrators imagine an early scene from Confucius’ life that demonstrates his reverence for the ritualistic practices handed down from the early Zhou Dynasty. The page depicts Confucius as a young child engaged in serious play with some mates mimicking ritualistic practices by wearing the proper ceremonial clothes and laying out the specified ceremonial vessels in preparation for studiously performing a liturgical ritual. While this scene is entirely fanciful since it does not appear in the historical record, it attests to the importance Confucius placed on the concept of li (禮), often translated as “ritual” or “propriety”. If you look closely at the Chinese character, it depicts a ritual vessel being placed upon a sacred alter and its original meaning in fact meant ‘to arrange ritual vessels’. For Confucius, ritualistic propriety ensured that society would be well-ordered and harmonious and he devoted much of his life studying and codifying ancient rituals. Ritualistic practices required a reverent and sincere attitude in making sacrificial offerings to ancestors as though they were truly present; these sacrifices had specified numbers and types of ceremonial vessels and included liturgical prayers, music, and dance meant to bring the participants into harmonious union with ancestral practices. This emphasis on the importance of ritual propriety is an important contribution to future Chinese dynasties and regulated state functions up until the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911.

This reverence for the political and moral efficacy of past rituals has had a profound effect on Chinese thought and social mores for millennia; but it is equally important to realize that such a deep respect for the past has never been universally appealing to all Chinese thinkers. Chinese literature and letters has many colorful voices critiquing this Confucian orientation to the past. Close to Confucius’ own time, the Warring States legalist man-of-letters Han Feizi savagely ridiculed a Ru-scholars’ worldview as one of his “five vermin”:

There was a farmer of Song who tilled the land, and in his field was a stump. One day a rabbit, racing across the field, bumped into the stump, broke its neck, and died. Thereupon the farmer laid aside his plow and took up watch beside the stump, hoping that he would get another rabbit in the same way. But he got no more rabbits, and instead became the laughingstock of Song. Those who think they can take the ways of the ancient kings and use them to govern the people of today all belong in the category of stump-watchers!

This satirical dismissal of the Confucian reverence for the past took on a very virulent strain in more recent Chinese history, particularly in the iconoclastic thought of the May Fourth ideals of a writer like Lu Xun, who denounced Confucianism as a cannibalistic tradition bent on “eating people” in such memorable short stories as “Diary of a Madman”:

…I seem to remember, though only vaguely, that people have been eating each other since ancient times. When I flick through the history books, I find no dates, only those fine Confucian principles ‘benevolence, righteousness, morality’ snaking their way across each page. As I studied them again, through one of my more implacably sleepless nights, I finally glimpsed what lay between every line, of each book: ‘Eat People!’

During the height of the Cultural Revolution, this wholesale condemnation of Confucian ideas and traditions was expressed in violent outbursts and destruction of many temples and artifacts related to Confucius, especially in his ancestral home of Qufu.

As China moves into the 21st century, the rehabilitation of Confucius and the resurgence of his legacy can best be appreciated only once one balances it against a tradition that critiqued Confucius’ orientation to the past as a debilitating obsession that cannot adequately address contemporary issues and challenges unknown to the great sages of yesteryear including Confucius himself. At the same time, Confucius’ vision of a harmonious society built upon veneration for China’s past achievements resonates strongly with a populace that has a newfound nationalistic and cultural pride as they boldly enter into the 21st century as a strong and powerful nation.

Resource Type: Resource Collections
Caterogy: All Grades, Arts & Literature, Beliefs/Religion, History, Society, Resource Collection

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Teach China Team

Teach China is a comprehensive professional development program offered by China Institute to provide a wealth of opportunities for K-12 educators to enhance their knowledge of China, past and present. We take an interdisciplinary approach consistent with national and state-mandated standards in order to help educators incorporate the teaching of China into all subjects and grade levels, including Mandarin language learning, the humanities, social studies, and the arts. Teach China promotes cross-cultural understanding through the use and creation of authentic materials, the presentation of balanced perspectives, and the fostering of enduring connections between educators around the world.