In the year 551 b.c. , during the reign of the Emperor Ling Wang, a boy was born at Yin-chow, in the province of Shan-tung. His father, named Kung, was a judge; he died when the child was three years old. The boy's mother brought him up, and took care that he was well taught. This shows how civilized the Chinese were at the time when kings were ruling in Rome, and long before the foundation of the Roman Empire.
The boy, who was named Chong-ni, grew up and showed a taste for old writings. He was steady and quiet, and thereby gained the respect of his neighbors. When he was seventeen years old he received an appointment in the revenue office. A few years later he was promoted to an office somewhat like that of surveyor. When he was twenty-four years old, his mother died. There was an old custom or law (law and custom have almost the same meaning in China), that an officer, upon the death of a parent, must resign his position, and live in retirement for three years. This custom had gone out of use, but Chong-ni acted upon it. He resigned, and withdrew into retirement.
During these three years Chong-ni devoted his entire time to the study of the old writers. It was his intention to teach their doctrine to the people, and hoped to induce them in this manner to return to the customs of former times. After the period of his mourning was over, he spent several years in traveling, and at the age of thirty he returned to Yin-chow.
From this time the boy Chong-ni became known as Kung Fu-tsz', or Kung the Teacher, which many years afterwards was turned into the Latin form of Confucius by the Jesuit priests in China. He settled down in Yin-chow as a teacher, and the number of his pupils grew rapidly, until he was asked to come to the court of the Prince of Tsi (tsee). He accepted; but when he came there he did not like court life, and so, with those students who had followed him, he continued his travels, teaching all the time.
One day as he was passing through a field, he noticed a man engaged in snaring birds, and placing them in different cages. Kung Fu-tsz' looked on for a time, while his students were wondering why their teacher took such an interest in such a simple thing. He finally went up to the man, and said:
"I do not see any old birds here; where have you put them?"
"The old birds," replied the man, "are too wary to be caught. They are on the lookout, and if they see a net or cage, far from falling into the snare, they fly away and never return. The young ones, which keep with them, also escape. I can catch only such as fly out by themselves, or go in company with other young birds. If I do sometimes catch an old bird, it is because it follows the young ones."
"Did you hear that?" asked Confucius, turning to his students. "The young birds escape only when they keep with the old ones. It is always so with us. Our young people are led astray by boldness, want of forethought, inattention, and by thinking that they know more than older people. And when the old ones are caught, it is because they are foolishly attached to the young, and allow themselves to be led astray by them."
Confucius was sixty-eight years old before he returned to Yin-chow. Here he continued to teach a very large number of students, at the same time collecting the ancient writings. When he had completed this work, he invited his students to go with him to one of the neighboring hills where for many years sacrifices had been offered. Here he had an altar built; put his books upon it, and, turning his face toward the north, he fell upon his knees and thanked Heaven that life and strength had been given to him to finish the difficult task, and prayed that the Chinese might benefit largely by his work.
There are several Chinese pictures of Confucius kneeling as in prayer, with a beam of light shining upon his books, while his students stand around filled with wonder and admiration.
A few days before his death he said:
He died in 479 b.c. , leaving one grandson called Tsz' sze. His descendants are hereditary dukes of the empire. Many temples have been erected in China in his honor, and he is considered as little less than a god by the Chinese. Confucius' life was devoted to the study and examination of the ancient writings, which he resolved to teach to his countrymen. This proves how old the civilization of China is, when at such a remote period, 2,450 years ago, it was possible to collect writings which were old at that time. It is remarkable that the teachings of Confucius contained nothing new or startling, but aimed at a return to former habits and customs. China must have been, indeed, a country far advanced in civilization, when a thoughtful man like Confucius could devote his life to urging the Chinese to return to the customs of bygone years. But what is most remarkable of all, is that his life should have had such an influence upon hundreds of millions of men.
Confucius says of himself: "The wise man and the man of virtue—how dare I rank myself with them! It may simply be said of me that I ever strive to improve, and that I never grow weary of teaching others. I may be equal to other men in knowledge of literature; but I have failed to reach the character of a superior man, one who carries out in his conduct what he teaches. These are the things which cause me fear: that I do not properly cultivate virtue; that I do not discuss thoroughly what I learn; that I am unable to act with righteousness when I know it; and that I am not able to change that which is not good. I am not one who was born wise. I am one who is fond of olden times, and who is seeking knowledge there. I am not a maker, but only one who transmits; but I am one who believes in and loves the wise men of old."
Confucius collected the Wu-King or Five Classics, and the S'shu or Four Books. The Five Classics, of which the Shu-King is one, contains Spring and Autumn, a work written by Confucius himself.
Confucius was not one of the wise men, like those who flourished in Rome and Greece, who taught of a future life. When one of his students once asked him what death meant, he answered sadly: "How can I tell you about death, when I am not perfectly acquainted with life?" His teachings embraced only the relations of life and its duties. The great principle taught by him, which can be perceived through out every institution of China, is the relation of the child toward the parent, or, as it is called, filial piety. There is no greater duty with the Chinese, nor is there a disgrace more dreaded than that of being thought Puh-hiao (poo-heeahoh), viz., undutiful. At the very earliest age, children are taught to be respectful and dutiful; such a thing as familiarity between child and parent is absolutely unknown. As the children grow up their old parents are entitled to be reverenced and cherished; all their wants must be anticipated, and everything must be done to please them. When the parents are dead, they must be worshiped by their children and sacrifices must be offered to them. The highest honor that can befall a man is to bring honor upon his ancestors.
The punishments for undutiful behavior to parents are horrible in their cruelty. But, as we shall see in another chapter, it is this principle of filial piety which renders the Chinese submissive to the authorities. For the Emperor is the father of all, and, since his authority is transferred to officers, disobedience to them would equal undutiful conduct.
The relation between husband and wife is simple. The wife's duty is to honor and obey, while the husband appears to have no duties at all toward her. When it was known in Peking that the wife of Prince Kung was dead, a gentleman of the United States Legation asked a high Chinese official if Prince Kung would retire for a while, or go into mourning. "Oh, no!" he replied, smiling, "the death of a wife is nothing at all. Why should the Prince go into mourning for her? He can get as many more wives as he wishes." But if very little is said of the duties between husband and wife, much is said as to the attitude of the elder brother to the younger. The rule is: Hiung ai, ti kin (heeoong ie, tee kin), that is: The elder must love, and the younger must respect.
This relationship of elder brother and younger was shown in China's conduct toward Korea, which country was thought to be tributary to China. Korea never paid any tribute, but sent presents to the Emperor of China on New Year's Day, and received in return presents of far greater value.
Confucius mentions five great virtues, and among these Jen, or charity, ranks first. When one of his students asked him if there was anything which might serve as a rule of practice for all one's life, he replied: "What you do not want done to yourself do not do to others." This rule is very similar to our Golden Rule, and comes nearer the teaching of the New Testament than any other saying of the old philosophers.
The motive of Confucius' teaching was his earnest desire to return to the ancient or patriarchal form of government. He had not the least idea that he was preparing a set of laws, but he wished men to be governed by moral influences only. He believed that if the emperors would set an example of virtue, the people would respect, obey and imitate them. For more than two thousand years his teaching has been the real law of the people. The Chinese still cling to the law of filial piety, which is good, and to that of ancestral worship, which is bad. They refuse to admit that their condition might be improved, and would sooner die than permit changes to be made.
The following is an extract from General Wilson's book on China, describing his visit to the tomb of Confucius:
"The grave of Confucius is within a separate enclosure, the entrance to which is covered by a large pavilion of the usual type, where the descendants of the sage come twice a year to offer sacrifices and worship him. A paved, sunken road, which runs between low retaining-walls on each side, leads to the tomb, which is a simple mound of earth about twenty feet high, overgrown by bushes and forest trees, including an oak. A stone tablet, nearly as high as the mound, a stone table, and an urn or incense-burner, stand in front of it. It is flanked by the burial-mounds of the mother, son, and grandson of Confucius, and the whole inclosure is heaped into mounds covering the remains of the successive heads and dignitaries of the family."