The details of Confucius’s life are murky, especially given the chaos surrounding the declining Zhou period in the 490s and 480s BCE. It is important to take into account the impact of interstate conflict on Confucius’s philosophical insights. A commoner who was effectively shut out of power by the three noble clans of Lu, Confucius was eventually driven out and forced to wander among the other states, due to the resentment of this traditional aristocracy. Despite the resistance of warring aristocrats, Confucius advocated a new approach to government, in which respect for the weak, poor, and defenseless would form the basis for civil society.
Victor H. Mair, Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt, and Paul R. Goldin, eds., Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005), 48–49.
The Warring States era (464 to 221 BCE) was a crucial turning point in Chinese history. During this time, the many effectively independent states into which China had become divided were at war with each other constantly. But unlike the constant warfare of the period 770 to 453 BCE, which had been aristocratic, based on extracting tribute and admissions of suzerainty, and which had involved small armies of charioteers, Warring States warfare evolved rapidly into a deadly contest of political survival. Some rulers began raising larger, infantry-based armies with which they conducted campaigns of conquest against their neighbors. To raise and support such armies, they refashioned their administrative systems and enhanced the power of kingship against their aristocracies. The fundamental outlines of the later Chinese imperial state were created during this age of military competition.
As rulers looked for every military advantage they could get, there arose a class of military experts who wrote advice on how best to use the new, larger armies in this life-or-death environment. The most famous of these many writers, Sun Tzu, is a shadowy figure about whom we know very little. He lived during the latter half of the Warring States period. Sun Tzu was a scholar of war, and he takes his place with Confucius, Lao Tzu (founder of Taoism), and Han Fei Tzu (founder of Legalism) as one of the Chinese masters. Indeed, the influence of Confucian, Taoist, and Legalist ideas can be seen in Sun Tzu’s principles of war. The scholarly nature of Sun Tzu’s work and the other Warring States military manuals is important in two ways. First, it shows that the study of warfare and its place in statecraft was taken seriously by Chinese intellectuals. But, second, the intellectualization of war fit into the anti-aristocratic, centralizing trends of Chinese states in this age. Sun Tzu and others constructed leadership—and indeed soldierly qualities—in warfare as a matter not of heroism and practical knowledge (as it had been for aristocratic-led armies earlier) but as the implementation of rational principles by a single trained expert; they saw good soldiers as obedient followers of this enlightened leadership. The implications of this model of military leadership for the structure of the state are clear.
From Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. Samuel B. Griffith. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1963).
This collection of sayings and reports attributed to Lord Shang (d. 338 BCE) may have been compiled by later officials, but its vision of a centralized bureaucracy was emulated at many points in China’s turbulent history. The work is composed of 25 or more brief sections, some of which are lost, but the remainder address the necessity of good and competent government.
Sebastian De Grazia, ed., Masters of Chinese Political Thought: From the Beginnings to the Han Dynasty (New York: Viking. 1973), 339–343.
A later student of Confucian doctrine, Master Meng (ca. 371–289 BCE) spread the teachings of the master, while also making his own distinctive contributions. Having traveled throughout China spreading Confucian ideals, particularly as a basis for governmental practice, Mencius composed a book that was in more of a narrative form than the Analects and was supplemented by stories, parables, and debates. He often used imagery drawn from the natural world and advocated the rulers’ involvement in cultivating a “well-field” system, both literally and metaphorically.
Victor H. Mair, Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt, and Paul R. Goldin, eds., Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005), 60–61.
Over 300 poems of various lengths were anthologized and transmitted by Confucius in the early fifth century BCE. Philosophers of the Confucian school cherished the Odes and cited them frequently, and they have continued to entrance readers with their naturalistic imagery and personal voices. Only two samples are given here, but this rich tradition of poetry should be sampled at length.
The Book of Songs, transl. Arthur Waley, edited with additional translations by Joseph R. Allen (New York: Grove, 1996), 27 and 65.
Followers of Confucius
Traditional versions of the Confucius’s life say that he was born in the sixth century B.C.E., and was an itinerant political advisor. He was, technically speaking, a failure in his lifetime, unable to find permanent employment with any one of the Zhou vassal kingdoms. Confucius is not the author of the Analects; they were gathered from his immediate followers, and read as a collection of profound musings on politics, morality, personal behavior, family, and culture.
The following excerpts give a broad overview of the basic Confucian tenets encapsulated in the Analects, including the Master’s thoughts on filial piety and the junzi, or “superior man.”
Confucius, “Selections from the Analects I,” from The Four Books. James Legge, ed. and trans. (Shanghai: The Chinese Book Company, 1930), 13, 16, 19, 33, 161-162, 245-248.
Although Han Fei-tzu (d. 233 BCE) began his studies as a Confucianist, he was a protégé of Hsun Tzu, one of Confucius’s more cynical successors. Thus Han Fei-tzu switched to Legalism, which was less concerned with theories and more concerned with the practical fundamentals of that interaction. Over time, what began as expediency became more deliberate and exhaustive in its attempts to regularize all aspects of civic behavior and thought.
Han Fei-tzu, “Selections on Legalism,” from The Four Books. James Legge, ed. and trans. (Shanghai: The Chinese Book Company, 1930), 437-442.
The Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu), a chronicle covering the years 722–483 BCE and composed at the court of Lu (the home state of Confucius), was acknowledged even at the time to be very difficult reading. Accordingly, scholars began composing commentaries to elucidate its finer points and clarify its meaning. The third orthodox commentary, attributed to “Mr. Zuo,” continues to influence historical thought about ancient China. This section concerns a conflict between the states of Qin and Jin in the seventh century BCE.
Victor H. Mair, eds., Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt, and Paul R. Goldin, Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005), 72–76.