Who has not heard of Confucius? But how many can claim to know about his life and work? There are hardly any meaningful biographies and those that exist tend more to discuss his philosophy than throw light on his life. The Analects?a collection of his sayings?was assembled long after his death. It contains direct quotes and reported dialogues between Confucius and his followers. But about the man himself we have little to go by. He was born in 551 BC, son of a retired soldier and a teenage concubine. His real name, in Chinese, is Kong Fuzi, meaning Master Kong. The name was Latinised by a European Jesuit; thus Confucius is a pure western invention.
To understand his time it is well to remember that when Confucius was born, Rome was still a collection of hutments, Pythogoras had yet to develop his theory of geometry, Buddha was yet to get enlightenment and Jerusalem had yet to build its famous temple. China itself like India of old, was a cluster of kingdoms. Born in poverty, Confucius managed to find employment as a civil servant but gave up what looked like a promising political career to become a teacher and philosopher. Unlike Gautama, the Buddha, Confucius did not go looking for salvation. He lived the life of a common man and his strength lay in watching the world go by and make sense out of it. It was wisdom, more than philosophy, that identified him and this is well illustrated in the Analects, a book frequently quoted by the author. In this department few excelled him. Deprivation in youth gave him a healthy obsession with frugality. Working as a ware-house keeper and later as a herdsman gave him insights in the functioning of governments. But what made Confucius what he was and became, was his deep interest in advance studies in music, rites and rituals. It was his total devotion to learning that drew the attention of the petty rulers of his time. As he put it, ?Cherish your old knowledge and strive for new, that you may be a teacher of others?. That philosophy stood him through times good and bad. Confucius had no interest in what happened after death. His main interest was what one should do when one was alive. As he put it??We cannot serve the dead until we have served the living, first know what life is before seeking to know death?.
Short though this book is, it tells us about all the trials and tribulations that Confucius went through. He could have risen to heights of power but he shunned in-fighting in the royal courts. He was often outspoken. When a prince once asked him how a government is best run, his answer was to the point. ?There is government? he said, ?when the prince is a prince, and the Minister is a Minister, when the father is a father and the son is a son.? That said it all. Confucian virtues are now summed up in eight words: Benevolence, Righteousness, Courtesy, Wisdom, Fidelity, Loyalty, Filial Pity and Service to Elders. What more need to be said about Confucius? Reading this book is to get enlightenment. Confucius excelled as a teacher. Today he has 379 million followers in 91 countries. And no wonder. Confucius is nothing if not wisdom incarnate.