Today is generally accepted to be the birthday (551 BCE) of the Chinese philosopher known in English as Confucius. Confucius is traditionally credited with having written or edited numerous Chinese classic texts, but modern scholars are cautious about attributing specific works to Confucius himself. Confucius’ stated principles have much in common with Chinese tradition and belief. He championed strong family loyalty, ancestor veneration, and respect of elders by their children and of husbands by their wives, recommending the family as a basis for ideal government. His teaching and philosophy have influenced people around the world. If you wish you can skip down below the biography which follows here and read about Confucian philosophy and its application to cooking.
The name “Confucius” is a Latinized form of the Mandarin Chinese “Kǒng Fūzǐ” (孔夫子, meaning “Master Kong” – often shortened nowadays to “孔子” Kǒng Zǐ – also intrinsically meaning “Master Kong” but is now simply a name in much the same way that all Chinese names have a literal meaning which is not particularly emphasized in everyday speech), and was coined in the late 16th century by the early Jesuit missionaries to China. Confucius’s clan name was “Kǒng” (孔; Old Chinese: *kʰˤoŋʔ), and his given name was “Qiū” (丘; OC: *kʷʰə). His “capping name”, given upon reaching adulthood and by which he would have been known to all but his older family members, was “Zhòngní” (仲尼; OC: *N-truŋ-s nrəj), the “Zhòng” indicating that he was the second son in his family.
Confucius was born in the district of Zou (鄒邑) near present-day Qufu in China. The area was notionally controlled by the kings of Zhou but effectively independent under the local lords of Lu. His father Kong He (孔紇) or Shuliang He (叔梁紇) was an elderly commandant of the local Lu garrison. His ancestry traced back through the dukes of Song to the Shang dynasty which had preceded the Zhou. Traditional accounts of Confucius’s life relate that Kong He’s grandfather had migrated the family from Song to Lu.
Kong He died when Confucius was 3 years old, and Confucius was raised by his mother Yan Zhengzai (顏徵在) in poverty. His mother was less than 40 when she died. At age 19 Confucius married Qiguan (亓官), and a year later the couple had their first child, Kong Li (孔鯉). They later had two daughters together, one of whom is thought to have died as a child. Confucius was educated at schools for commoners, where he studied and learned the Six Arts: Rites (禮), Music (樂), Archery (射), Charioteering (御), Calligraphy (書), and Mathematics (數).
Confucius was born into the class of shi (士), between the aristocracy and the common people. He is said to have worked in various government jobs during his early 20s, and as a bookkeeper and a caretaker of sheep and horses, using the proceeds to give his mother a proper burial. When his mother died, Confucius (aged 23) is said to have mourned for three years, as was the tradition.
In Confucius’s time, the state of Lu was headed by a ruling ducal house. Under the duke were three aristocratic families, whose heads bore the title of viscount (all noble titles used here are English equivalents of old Chinese terms) and held hereditary positions in the Lu bureaucracy. The Ji family held the position “Minister over the Masses”, who was also the “Prime Minister”; the Meng family held the position “Minister of Works”; and the Shu family held the position “Minister of War”. In the winter of 505 BC, Yang Hu—a retainer of the Ji family—rose up in rebellion and seized power from the Ji family. However, by the summer of 501 BCE, the three hereditary families had succeeded in expelling Yang Hu from Lu. By then, Confucius had built up a considerable reputation through his teachings, and families came to see the value of proper conduct and righteousness, so they could maintain loyalty to a legitimate government. Thus, that year Confucius came to be appointed to the minor position of governor of a town. Eventually, he rose to the position of Minister of Crime.
Confucius desired to return the authority of the state to the duke by dismantling the fortifications of the city—strongholds belonging to the three families. This way, he could establish a centralized government. However, Confucius relied solely on diplomacy as he had no military authority himself. In 500 BCE, Hou Fan—the governor of Hou—revolted against his lord of the Shu family. Although the Meng and Shu families unsuccessfully besieged Hou, a loyalist official rose up with the people of Hou and forced Hou Fan to flee to the Qi state. The situation may have been in favor for Confucius as this likely made it possible for Confucius and his disciples to convince the aristocratic families to dismantle the fortifications of their cities. Eventually, after a year and a half, Confucius and his disciples succeeded in convincing the Shu family to raze the walls of Hou, the Ji family in razing the walls of Bi, and the Meng family in razing the walls of Cheng. First, the Shu family led an army towards their city Hou and tore down its walls in 498 BCE.
Soon thereafter, Gongshan Furao or Buniu, a retainer of the Ji family, revolted and took control of the forces at Bi. He immediately launched an attack and entered the capital Lu. Earlier, Gongshan had approached Confucius to join him, which Confucius considered. Even though he disapproved the use of a violent revolution, the Ji family dominated the Lu state force for generations and had exiled the previous duke. Although he wanted the opportunity to put his principles into practice, Confucius gave up on this idea in the end. Gongshan was generally considered an upright man who continued to defend the state of Lu, even after he was forced to flee.
During the revolt by Gongshan, Zhong You (仲由) had managed to keep the duke and the three viscounts together at the court. Zhong You was one of the disciples of Confucius, and Confucius had arranged for him to be given the position of governor by the Ji family. When Confucius heard of the raid, he requested that Viscount Ji Huan allow the duke and his court to retreat to a stronghold on his palace grounds. Thereafter, the heads of the three families and the duke retreated to the Ji’s palace complex and ascended the Wuzi Terrace. Confucius ordered two officers to lead an assault against the rebels. At least one of the two officers was a retainer of the Ji family, but they were unable to refuse the orders while in the presence of the duke, viscounts, and court. The rebels were pursued and defeated at Gu. Immediately after the revolt was defeated, the Ji family razed the Bi city walls to the ground.
The attackers retreated after realizing that they would have to become rebels against the state and their lord. Through Confucius’s actions, the Bi officials had inadvertently revolted against their own lord, thus forcing Viscount Ji Huan’s hand in having to dismantle the walls of Bi (as it could have harbored such rebels) or confess to instigating the event by going against proper conduct and righteousness as an official. The incident brought to light Confucius’ foresight, practical political ability, and insight into human character.
When it was time to dismantle the city walls of the Meng family, the governor was reluctant to have his city walls torn down and convinced the head of the Meng family not to do so. The Zuo Zhuan recalls that the governor advised against razing the walls as he believed that this would make Cheng vulnerable to the Qi state and cause the destruction of the Meng family. Even though viscount Meng Yi gave his word not to interfere with an attempt, he went back on his earlier promise to dismantle the walls.
Later in 498 BCE, duke Ding personally went with an army to lay siege to Cheng in an attempt to raze its walls to the ground, but he did not succeed. Thus, Confucius could not achieve the idealistic reforms that he wanted including restoration of the legitimate rule of the duke. He had made powerful enemies within the state, especially with viscount Ji Huan, due to his successes so far. According to accounts in the traditional records, Zuo Zhuan and Shiji, Confucius departed his homeland in 497 BCE after his support for the failed attempt of dismantling the fortified city walls of the powerful Ji, Meng, and Shu families. He left the state of Lu without resigning, remaining in self-exile and unable to return as long as viscount Ji Huan was alive.
The Shiji stated that the neighboring Qi state was worried that Lu was becoming too powerful while Confucius was involved in the government of the Lu state. According to this account, Qi decided to sabotage Lu’s reforms by sending 100 good horses and 80 beautiful dancing girls to the duke of Lu. The duke indulged himself in pleasure and did not attend to official duties for three days. Confucius was disappointed and resolved to leave Lu and seek better opportunities, yet to leave at once would expose the misbehavior of the duke and therefore bring public humiliation to the ruler Confucius was serving. Confucius therefore waited for the duke to make a lesser mistake. Soon after, the duke neglected to send to Confucius a portion of the sacrificial meat that was his due according to custom, and Confucius seized upon this pretext to leave both his post and the Lu state.
After Confucius’ resignation, he began a long journey or set of journeys around the principality states of north-east and central China including Wey, Song, Zheng, Cao, Chu, Qi, Chen, and Cai (and a failed attempt to go to Jin). At the courts of these states, he expounded his political beliefs but did not see them implemented.
According to the Zuo Zhuan, Confucius returned home to his native Lu when he was 68, after he was invited to do so by Ji Kangzi, the chief minister of Lu. The Analects depict him spending his last years teaching 72 or 77 disciples and transmitting the old wisdom via a set of texts called the Five Classics. These are:
Classic of Poetry
A collection of 305 poems divided into 160 folk songs, 105 festal songs sung at court ceremonies, and 40 hymns and eulogies sung at sacrifices to heroes and ancestral spirits of the royal house.
Book of Documents
A collection of documents and speeches alleged to have been written by rulers and officials of the early Zhou period and before. It is possibly the oldest Chinese narrative, and may date from the 6th century BCE. It includes examples of early Chinese prose.
Book of Rites
Describes ancient rites, social forms and court ceremonies. The version studied today is a re-worked version compiled by scholars in the 3rd century BCE rather than the original text, which is said to have been edited by Confucius himself.
I Ching (Book of Changes)
The book contains a, now, well known divination system. In Western cultures and modern East Asia, it is still widely used for this purpose.
Spring and Autumn Annals
An historical record of the State of Lu, Confucius’s native state, 722–481 BCE.
During his return, Confucius sometimes acted as an advisor to several government officials in Lu, including Ji Kangzi, on matters including governance and crime. Burdened by the loss of both his son and his favorite disciples, Confucius died at the age of 71 or 72. He died from natural causes. Confucius was buried in Kong Lin cemetery which lies in the historical part of Qufu in the Shandong Province. The original tomb erected there in memory of Confucius on the bank of the Sishui River had the shape of an axe. In addition, it has a raised brick platform at the front of the memorial for offerings such as sandalwood incense and fruit.
Although Confucianism is often followed in a religious manner by the Chinese, many argue that its values are secular and that it is, therefore, less a religion than a secular morality. Proponents argue, however, that despite the secular nature of Confucianism’s teachings, it is based on a worldview that is religious. Confucianism discusses elements of the afterlife and views concerning Heaven, but it is relatively unconcerned with some spiritual matters which you might consider essential to religious thought, such as the nature of souls. However, Confucius is said to have believed in astrology, saying: “Heaven sends down its good or evil symbols and wise men act accordingly”.
In the Analects, Confucius presents himself as a “transmitter who invented nothing”. He puts the greatest emphasis on the importance of study, and it is the Chinese character for study (學) that opens the text. Far from trying to build a systematic or formalist theory, he wanted his disciples to master and internalize older classics, so that their deep thought and thorough study would allow them to relate the moral problems of the present to past political events (as recorded in the Annals) or the past expressions of commoners’ feelings and noblemen’s reflections (as in the poems of the Book of Odes).
His moral teachings emphasized self-cultivation, emulation of moral exemplars, and the attainment of skilled judgment rather than knowledge of rules. Confucian ethics may, therefore, be considered a type of virtue ethics. His teachings rarely rely on reasoned argument, and ethical ideals and methods are conveyed indirectly, through allusion, innuendo, and even tautology. His teachings require examination and context to be understood. A good example is found in this famous anecdote:
“When the stables were burnt down, on returning from court Confucius said, “Was anyone hurt?” He did not ask about the horses.” By not asking about the horses, Confucius demonstrates that the sage values human beings over property; readers are led to reflect on whether their response would follow Confucius’ and to pursue self-improvement if it would not have. Confucius not serve as the prophet of a deity, and his teachings are not understood as a universally true set of abstract principles. Rather he is represented as the ultimate model for others. Many commentators therefore consider Confucius’ teachings to be a Chinese example of humanism.
One of his teachings was a variant of the Golden Rule, sometimes called the “Silver Rule” owing to its negative form:
“What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.”
Zi Gong [a disciple] asked: “Is there any one word that could guide a person throughout life?”
The Master replied: “How about ‘reciprocity’! Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”
Often overlooked in Confucian ethics are the virtues to the self: sincerity and the cultivation of knowledge. Virtuous action towards others begins with virtuous and sincere thought, which begins with knowledge. A virtuous disposition without knowledge is susceptible to corruption, and virtuous action without sincerity is not true righteousness. Cultivating knowledge and sincerity is also important for one’s own sake; the superior person loves learning for the sake of learning and righteousness for the sake of righteousness. Words to live by !!! I am not in any sense a Confucian scholar or disciple (although I have studied his works), but in one way or another I adhere to these principles.
No recipe today, but instead Confucian principles related to food (which are followed in China, but not always in Chinese restaurants outside of China). The philosophy of Confucius is deeply reflected in Chinese food culture to this day. He attached great importance to food and described it as one of the three basic conditions, along with an army and trust, for founding a state. It is said that Confucius helped to bring perfect taste to Chinese food by developing proper cooking techniques.
Confucian food basics:
- Food should be served in small or chopped pieces
- The taste of any dish depends on proper mixing of all of its ingredients and condiments
- Taste of individual elements does not have great importance in food, but fine blending of ingredients results in great taste and dishes in meals must be compatible
- Blending of food also results in harmony and is an important part of the philosophy; without harmony foods cannot taste good
- Eat only at meal times
- Don’t eat food that smells bad
- Don’t consume food that is not well cooked
- Eat fresh and local; do not eat food out of season
- Don’t eat when the sauces and seasonings are not correctly prepared
- Eat ginger but in moderation so as to not increase the internal heat of the body
- Know the origin or source of your food
- The way you cut your food reflects the way you live
- Meat should be eaten in moderation
- Eat only until seven tenths full; control in portions promotes longevity
- You need not limit drinking, but do not drink to the point of confusion
- Hygiene is essential in food preparation