“It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.”
“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”
“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in getting up every time we do.”
Adherents or not, most Westerners have encountered the precepts of Confucius. His proverbs fill inspirational books and adorn beautiful cards. When his ideas emerged in 6th century China, they did not attract much attention. After his death, however, they quickly spread through the rest of East Asia by the promotion of his followers. Scottish missionary James Legge provided the first English translation of the well-known Analects in 1861.
Confucius (551 B.C. – 479 B.C.) lived during the Spring and Autumn period (春秋时代) of China, which spanned from 771 B.C. to 476 or 403 B.C. China underwent much turmoil during this period, including societal upheavals and war among powerful states. The academic atmosphere also shifted so as to include commoners in addition to the nobility. Schools for the non-aristocratic man appeared, and at one such school Confucius studied the Six Arts (六艺) of archery, chariot racing, calligraphy, rites, mathematics, and music.
After “graduating” from school, Confucius held a couple government positions before falling back to teaching. He drew inspiration from traditional Chinese thought to develop a path by which society could attain peace and happiness during that tumultuous era. His philosophy, Confucianism, was based on the idea that stability and unity in society could be achieved only through adherence to accepted values and standards.
Though sometimes called a religion, Confucianism is more a social and ethical philosophy than a religion. The tenants of Confucianism rest on societal relationships. Confucius defined five basic relationships: ruler-subject, father-son, husband-wife, elder-younger, and friend-friend. Harmony and observance of appropriate rules and obligations in these relationships will impact harmony in society at large.
The central concepts of Confucianism are li (礼) and ren (仁), which translate to humanness and rituals. The two concepts are connected. Li relates to the ethical behavior among peoples; ren, to the cultivation of character that one who rightly practice li foster. One who achieves true ren becomes junzi (君子), the “superior person.”
The Five Classics and Four Books (五经 and 四书) form the basis of Confucian thought. The Five Classics have some background in Confucius’s time, but much of their writing was completed in the generations before him. Historical accounts point to Confucius’ disciples as the authors of the Four Books, which includes Analects. The literature outlines moral instruction, history, social issues, social conduct, and divination.
Two Confucian schools of thoughts formed after Confucius’s death: one that emphasized the innate goodness of man and one that emphasized the innate evil. According to the former, Confucianism seeks to restore that human goodness, which life in the world mars. According to the latter, Confucianism regenerates human depravity through li.
During the rule of Emperor Wu during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – A.D. 220), Confucianism gained especial popularity. The role Confucianism played in government at the time reflects its growing importance in imperial China: To enter the Chinese administrative hierarchy, a boy had to pass the civil service examinations, which required a thorough knowledge of the Confucian classics.
Since the rise of the Chinese Republic under Mao Zedong (1893-1976), Confucianism has lost ground in China, though it remains important in Japan, Korea, and other Asian countries. Furthermore, even as it has fallen out of favor since the 20th century, it maintains a presence in China.