Confucius would no doubt be surprised and quite pleased to know that more than 2,500 years after his birth, people all over the world remember his name and his teachings. How he would feel about his aphorisms being stuffed into fortune cookies, though, I cannot say.
Confucius, more properly known as Kong Qiu, was not particularly successful in his own lifetime. He did have a handful of dedicated students, who wrote down and preserved his sayings for posterity. However, he sought throughout his life to reform the government of his day, but the Dukes of Lu ignored his calls for change.
Who was Confucius? Why do his words still resonate, so long after his death?
Confucius's Early Life:
Confucius was born in 552 or 551 BCE in the village of Tsou, Lu Kingdom, now in Shandong Province, China. His father was probably called Shu Ho; his mother's name is not recorded with any certainty. Some sources call her Cheng Tsai. There is a legend that Shu Ho was 70 years old when he had an illicit relationship with a teenaged girl, resulting in Confucius's birth. A different legend holds that the child's mother was one of his father's concubines, rather than an official wife.
We have no contemporary sources on Confucius's early life, and his Analects or recorded sayings do not provide biographical details, so most of the information we rely upon today comes from the great Chinese historian Sima Qian, who wrote about four hundred years after the death of Confucius.
The other source which mentions at least the birth-date of Confucius is the Ch'un-ch'iu, or chronicle of the Kingdom of Lu. However, in different places that chronicle lists his birthday as either the tenth or eleventh month of the year, so it is not entirely reliable, either.
When Confucius was a young man, the State of Lu was headed by a Duke, but real power lay with three noble families. Confucius developed a reputation for wisdom, so became first a town mayor and eventually, the dukedom's Minister of Crime.
As a government official, Confucius called for the three noble families to tear down the walls around each of their home cities, so that they could not raise rebellions against the rightful ruler, the Duke of Lu. (The nobles had even sent a previous duke into exile because he would not bend to their demands.) However, Confucius's advocacy for a more centralized government, in which the Duke held true power, made him some powerful enemies among the nobles.
In 497 BCE, Confucius was forced to leave Lu because the Viscount Ji Huan, from the noble family that held the Prime Ministership, was enraged by his teachings and wanted him dead. Confucius, then about 51 years old, went to the neighboring State of Qi to the east.
The former government minister remained in exile for sixteen or seventeen years. He wandered the countryside, gathering and teaching disciples. When he reached the age of 68, Confucius finally was able to return to the State of Lu, after his old enemies had died.
The Teachings of Confucius:
In his teachings, Confucius emphasized a harmonious society based on respect and compassion, and self-improvement through education. He hoped that the local rulers would apply these principles, thus serving as examples to their subjects, but during his lifetime the Dukes of Lu and Qi both ignored his advice.
Confucius taught a situational type of ethics - in other words, a person had to decide the right course of action based upon the situation at hand, rather than simply memorizing and applying rules of conduct. Many of his sayings have come down to us, including the following: "If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed; if in terms of ten years, plant trees; if in terms of 100 years, teach the people," "The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home," and "The perfecting of one's self is the fundamental base of all progress and all moral development."
Confucius died in 479 BCE, probably at the age of 73 or 74. After his death, his disciples recorded his teachings in a book now known as the Analects, and spread his teachings far and wide. Confucianism became the basis for government and family relationships not only in China itself, but also in Korea, Vietnam and (to a lesser extent) Japan over the next two thousand years.
One of Confucius's foundational ideas was that of the junzi, or ideal man. Originally, the word simply meant "the son of a lord," so any nobleman was a junzi. Confucius changed the usage, however, to mean an educated man of good character and benevolent mind - a true gentleman, regardless of birth. As Confucianism developed, the Chinese government began to choose gentleman scholars as court officials, rather than filling the court with anyone who had a hereditary claim to nobility. This civil service exam system meant that even the son of a peasant, if he was smart and lucky enough to get a rich patron, could become a government official.
Although some people over the years have worshiped Confucius as a deity of learning, and have built temples to honor him, Confucius himself says absolutely nothing about gods or religion in his teachings. The closest approach to religion is in his emphasis on respecting one's ancestors.
Confucius. The Analects of Confucius, trans. James Legge, MobileReference, 2009.
Freedman, Russell. Confucius: The Golden Rule, Scholastic Inc., 2002.
Kaizuka, Shigeki and Geoffrey Bownas. Confucius: His Life and Thought, Mineola, NY: Courier Dover Publications, 2002.