Did Confucius Actually Say What He Said?

Perhaps the extent to which many Westerners are familiar with Confucius is through “Confucius says” jokes. He may also be associated with fortune cookies in the minds of the elderly. In the eyes of many, Confucius was not a completely systematic thinker like Plato or Aristotle, but rather an aphoristic philosopher who offered wisdom quotations similar to those found in the Bible’s Book of Proverbs.

But to the Chinese, he represents all of that and more. One of the world’s longest continuously practiced ideologies or faiths may be traced back to what Confucius taught or the general ideas. Confucianism is an important part of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean culture, even though it isn’t practiced as much as it once was. Some parts of Enlightenment philosophy originated with Western intellectuals reading Confucius and being impacted by this secular and humanistic approach; thus, Confucius has even had an impact on Western culture. Did Confucius say what he said? That is the question that all this leads to.

To Start, Let’s Avoid the Cringeworthy Jokes

Confucianism traveled to America with the Chinese immigrants. Many of these first-generation immigrants clung to Confucianism and attempted to articulate or cite Confucius in English, often mocking the speaker’s accent and the beliefs being expressed. The English speakers eventually started using “Confucius say” jokes as a way to humiliate the immigrants; these jokes would often be followed by comments that were certainly not quotes from Confucius, but rather reinterpretation.

In the 1930s, columnist Walter Winchell continued the trend by popularizing the joke in his writings. Then, radio presenter Jack Benny helped spread the format even further. The “Confucius say” sections began appearing in numerous American newspapers in the 1940s. In the modern era of the internet, the format has returned to Wise Confucius picture macros. Using a photomontage of Confucius from Chinese art as the background, this version reused a lot of the same gags.

Fortune cookies were another way that Americans were introduced to Confucius before this modern style. The broad consensus holds that Korean-American writer and businessman Yong Sik Lee, who said: “Making a joke of him is not right…,” was the driving force behind the decision to stop using Confucian quotations in fortune cookies after 1981. “Confucius says” is not something I find endearing. I eliminated every one of them. That became a pattern.

However, although Confucius did not remark “It takes many nails to build a crib, but only one screw to fill it,” he did utter a great deal that profoundly impacted global history. So, what exactly was Confucius trying to convey?

First, Some Background Information

To say the time in which Confucius lived was turbulent would be an understatement. Confucius, who was born in 551 BCE into the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, attempted to pacify society through the medium of classical doctrine. This was greatly impacted by the period he lived in, the Warring States.

Here we arrive at the way leadership is governed. The Zhou had the Mandate of Heaven, whereas the Muslims had caliphs and the medieval Europeans had divine authority. Depending on the context, “heaven” can be nature, fate, a little god, or the capital G God. The fabled sage monarchs who laid the groundwork for Chinese civilization were the basis for the Zhou’s justification of this idea.

The divine right to reign was bestowed upon those wise monarchs. For the Zhou, the afterlife was a spiritual democracy in which the will of the people, rather than a voting system, determined who should rule. While this was effective during the Zhou’s conquests of the 11th century BCE, Heaven failed to appoint a suitable ruler for over 500 years after the Zhou’s power collapsed in 771.

When the Zhou were driven from their capital by non-Chinese invaders, they relocated to what is now Luoyang in the east. Simultaneously, local rulers began to lose faith in the monarchy and divided their domains accordingly. Thus, as you might expect from the previously mentioned era’s name, it was a time of continual combat, with hundreds of states at war with each other at the outset and later reduced to tens of states as power was concentrated, but all of them were still at war constantly.

At that period, there was no strong enough regional monarch to be named emperor. Here we return to the mandate of heaven, which was the standard by which rulers were judged; those who did not attain the title of emperor were constantly in danger of losing their position of authority. Since no one could obtain that valuable mandate, there was a high rate of king turnover throughout regions as noble families were ousted.

However, Do You Know Who Supported the Heavenly Mandate?

The Great Confucius. Lu, the realm from when Confucius was born, was situated in the middle of the Zhou heartlands and thus had difficulty expanding. It is worth noting that Lu, like Confucius, was profoundly impacted by Zhou culture and religion. Therefore, Confucius did not consider himself to be the creator of his religious school, movement, or school of thought; rather, he saw himself as a conduit for the transmission of wisdom from the great monarchs who came before him. The divine authority to reign was bestowed upon these same wise monarchs.

By the way, Confucianism isn’t the label that Confucius or the Confucians used for their movement. The Chinese term for Confucius and Confucians is Ru, and the term for their school of thought is Ru Jia. Ru signifies “soft” since being gentle with people was a requirement of the wise kings’ and sages’ ways of life. Think of it as a spiritual democracy once more; the will of the people is how heaven expresses its mandate, therefore treat them kindly.

In the earlier Zhou dynasty, Confucius was a member of the Shi caste. Originally, they were a warrior nobility, similar to the Japanese Samurai. They rose through the ranks of the bureaucracy after centuries of study, becoming experts in rites and history. By 1911, when Imperial China came to a close, Confucians had maintained this link between ceremony, history, and bureaucracy. A “gentleman” (Junzi, an expansion of “Shi”) was something Confucius aspired to foster. These men were the scholar-officials who oversaw the Chinese civil service from the time of Confucius until Imperial China’s downfall, and they would later become Confucians.

What You Didn’t Know About Confucius

  • Beyond philosophy, Confucius was a polymath. He was proficient in various arts, including calligraphy, music, and painting. He was also a skilled musician and reputedly played several instruments.
  • Confucius transformed education by advocating for an inclusive system. He believed in teaching based on individual capabilities rather than societal status, challenging the hierarchical education of his time.
  • While Confucius himself didn’t write comprehensive texts, his philosophy was compiled and preserved by his disciples in works like the “Analects.” These texts collected his sayings and teachings.
  • He had ambitions to serve in a governmental role but faced several setbacks and was never granted a significant political position despite his deep knowledge and wisdom.
  • Confucius was married and had a son and a daughter. However, his personal life was marked by tragedy; he lost his son at a young age and his daughter faced severe hardship.
  • At the age of 50, Confucius was exiled from his home state of Lu due to political turmoil. He spent many years traveling through various Chinese states, teaching and seeking to impart wisdom.
  • Confucius was a revered teacher and had a significant number of students and followers. He attracted disciples from diverse backgrounds, not just the nobility, which was unusual in his time.
  • Confucius emphasized ethical behavior, moral rectitude, and social harmony. His philosophy revolved around the importance of personal virtue and leading by example.
  • Confucius’s teachings deeply influenced East Asian cultures, particularly in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. His ideas shaped societal norms, ethics, and governance for centuries.
  • Confucius’s legacy is immense. He is revered as one of the greatest philosophers in Chinese history, and numerous temples and monuments dedicated to him exist across East Asia, signifying his enduring impact.

Reflecting on Confucius’s teachings is akin to navigating a rich tapestry woven with anecdotes and wisdom. While historical accuracy regarding his utterances may be elusive, the essence of his philosophy endures. It’s less about whether Confucius uttered every quoted phrase and more about the societal impact of these teachings.