Confucius – 孔子 (pīnyīn: Kǒng zi) - 551 BC – 479 BC - is the first man to teach and write in a private professional capacity. He saw himself as a transmitter, not a writer (Analects, VII-1,『子曰:述而不作』, “The Master said, I am a transmitter not a maker”), and the whole system of thought of the Confucian School 儒家 (pīnyīn: Rú jiā) is based on creation and re-interpretation of previous texts. He admitted the principle of accepting anyone as a student (Analects, XV-39, 『有教無類。』, “In teaching there should be no distinction of classes.”. Although some of the later Confucians attributed to him the writing of the Five Classics – 五經, the only written work that can be attributed to him is the Analects - 論語 (simplified: 论语, pīnyīn: Lún yǔ).
The disciples of Confucius are referred to as literati or 儒 (pīnyīn: Rú) as no specific term exists for a “Confucian” in Chinese.
The key elements of the thinking of Confucius can be summarized as follows:
  • Learning: Confucius put a strong emphasis on learning and study -學((simplified: 学, pīnyīn: xué), seen as a the way to attain the virtues and humanity (Analects, I-1, 『學而時習之,不亦說乎?有朋自遠方來,不亦樂乎?人不知而不慍,不亦君子乎?』, “Is it not pleasant to learn with a constant perseverance and application? Is it not delightful to have friends coming from distant quarters? Is he not a man of complete virtue, who feels no discomposure though men may take no note of him?”).
    • Conservatism: as a native of the Lu鲁, Confucius was particularly attached to the institutions and traditions described in the Five Classics – 五經, which correspond overall to the institutions and traditions of the Chou 周 (pīnyīn: Zhōu) dynasty – 1046 BC – 256 BC. Additionally, the times were of transition from a pure feudal system to centralized imperial power and Confucius put himself as a guardian of the traditions of the ancients (Analects, VII-20, 『我非生而知之者,好古,敏以求之者也。』, “I am not one who was born in the possession of knowledge; I am one who is fond of antiquity, and earnest in seeking it there.”).
  • The Confucian Virtues (Analects XVII-6, 『子張問仁於孔子。孔子曰:“能行五者於天下,為仁矣。”請問之。曰:“恭、寬、信、敏、惠。』,“Zi Zhang asked Confucius about perfect virtue. Confucius said, 'To be able to practice five things everywhere under heaven constitutes perfect virtue.' He begged to ask what they were, and was told, 'Gravity, generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness, and kindness.'”):
    • Compassion, humanity - Confucius defines the concept of virtue as humanity, benevolence or compassion - 仁 (pīnyīn: rén). (Analects, XII-22, 『樊遲問仁。子曰:“愛人。” 』, “Fan Chi asked about benevolence. The Master said, 'It is to love all men.'” ; Analects, VI-30, 『能近取譬,可謂仁之方也已。』, “To be able from one's own self to draw a parallel for the treatment of others, that may be called the way to practice compassion”). and earnest in seeking it there.”).
    • Compassion – 仁 is equated to two other qualities: Conscientiousness towards Others or Loyalty 忠 (pīnyīn: zhōng) and Altruism 恕(pīnyīn: shù) (Analects IV-15, 『夫子之道,忠恕而已矣。』,“The doctrine of our master is to be true to the principles of our nature and the benevolent exercise of them to others, this and nothing more.”; Analects XV-24,『 子貢問曰:'有一言而可以終身行之者乎?'子曰:'其恕乎!己所不欲,勿施於人。'』,“Zi Gong asked, saying, "Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one's life?" The Master said, "Is not reciprocity such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others."').
    • Morality – Confucius held the qualities of Righteousness 義, (simplified: 义, pīnyīn: yì) and uprightness (simplified: 直, pīnyīn: zhí) as the essence or substance – 質 (simplified: 质, pīnyīn: zhì) of the superior man - 君子. (Analects, XV-18 - 『君子義以為質,禮以行之,孫以出之,信以成之。君子哉!』, “The superior man in everything considers righteousness to be essential. He performs it according to the rules of propriety. He brings it forth in humility. He completes it with sincerity. This is indeed a superior man.”; Analects VI-19, 『人之生也直,罔之生也幸而免。』,“Man is born for uprightness. If a man lose his uprightness, and yet live, his escape from death is the effect of mere good fortune.”)
    • Filial Piety or Obedience – 孝 (pīnyīn: xiào) is treated by Confucius more like a method rather than as a virtue in itself (Analects I-11,『父在,觀其志;父沒,觀其行;三年無改於父之道,可謂孝矣。』“While a man's father is alive, look at the bent of his will; when his father is dead, look at his conduct. If for three years he does not alter from the way of his father, he may be called filial.”). It is a theme that is specially developed later in his school.
  • Rites – Confucius conservatism led to a strong advocacy of Rites and Etiquette – 禮 (simplified: 礼, pīnyīn: lǐ) (Analects, VIII-3, 『恭而無禮則勞,慎而無禮則葸,勇而無禮則亂,直而無禮則絞。君子篤於親,則民興於仁;故舊不遺,則民不偷。』, “Respectfulness, without the rules of propriety, becomes laborious bustle; carefulness, without the rules of propriety, becomes timidity; boldness, without the rules of propriety, becomes insubordination; straightforwardness, without the rules of propriety, becomes rudeness. When those who are in high stations perform well all their duties to their relations, the people are aroused to virtue. When old friends are not neglected by them, the people are preserved from meanness.”)
  • There are 5 classics -五經 (simplified: 五经, pīnyīn: Wǔ jīng)- that are traditionally attributed to Confucius, and where in principle transmitted (maybe rearranged) by him:
    • The Book of Odes or 詩經 (simplified: 诗经, pīnyīn: Shī Jīng),
    • The Book of History or 書經 (simplified: 书经, pīnyīn: Shū Jīng),
    • The Book Etiquette and Ceremonial or 儀禮 (simplified: 仪礼, pīnyīn: Yí lǐ),
    • The Spring and Autumn Annals or 春秋 (simplified: 春秋, pīnyīn: Chūn Qiū),
    • The Book of Changes or I Ching - 易經 (simplified: 易经, pīnyīn: Yì Jīng),
  • The concept of Perfect Man or Superior Man – 君子 (pīnyīn: Jūn zi) is that of a man that would possess the “humanities” or virtues above. The Confucian thinking always touched two registers: the internal through self-cultivation or 修身 (simplified: 修身, pīnyīn : xiū shēn) towards the “internal sage” - 內聖 (simplified :内圣, pīnyīn: nèi shèng); and the external, the charge that the ruler has of govern the country 治國 (simplified :治国, pīnyīn : zhì guó) as an “ external king ” - 外王 (simplified: 外王 , pīnyīn: wài wáng). Confucius put emphasis on virtues and example, as a demonstration of these two levels. (Analects, XII-17, 『 季康子問政於孔子。孔子對曰:“政者,正也。子帥以正,孰敢不正?” 』,“ Ji Kang asked Confucius about government. Confucius replied, "To govern means to rectify. If you lead on the people with correctness, who will dare not to be correct?" ”).
  • The Doctrine of Rectification of Names – 正名 (pīnyīn: Zhèng míng): Confucius believed that the degeneration of political and social states originated from the top and that the disorder in the world was caused by the mismatch between “actualities” (things, facts) and their names. The solution would be the Rectification of Names - 正名, which calls for a precise definition of each name and its attachment to the corresponding actuality. This is particularly true for the political order, starting by the ruler down to the officials and common people, which would find their roles in society precisely defined. (Analects, XIII-3 - 『子路曰:“衛君待子而為政,子將奚先?”子曰:“必也正名乎!』,“Zi Lu said, 'The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order with you to administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?' The Master replied, 'What is necessary is to rectify names.'”

Themes further developed in later schools:
  • Confucius held in a particularly negative manner the notion of “benefit” or “profit” (Analects IV-16, 『君子喻於義,小人喻於利。』, “The Superior Man is informed of what is right, the inferior man is in what is profitable.”), this topic would be mainly criticized by the Moist school.
  • Confucius does not prioritize the importance of essence and acquired practices (Analects XVII-2, 『性相近也,習相遠也。』,“By nature, men are nearly alike; by practice, they get to be wide apart.”). This was to be the central discussion in the Confucian school.

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