Confucius
written and photographed by Dr. Klaus G. Muller

 

Confucius

»The pen is mightier than the sword.« No emperor, no warlord, no general has influenced China more than »Master Kong of the Apricot Hill«, as scholars used to call him affectionately. Kongzi, the Chinese political and moral philosopher, lived around 500 B.C. He came from an impoverished rural noble family and preached a sense of family, veneration for ancestors and respect for elders. One had also to respect the reigning government, as long as it fulfilled the »Mandate of Heaven« and brought happiness and prosperity to the people. The essence was filial love, piety or »xiao« in Chinese. It bound together not only the family as the smallest unit of society but also the whole nation. The emperor was the Son of Heaven to whom obedience was owed, but he was also the father of the Chinese people which should show him respect. The teaching of Confucius was a reaction to the lax spirit of his time, which was characterized by the decay of traditional morals and conflicts between feudal provincial princes. His views were based on the belief that there had been an era of perfect virtue in the distant past, brought about by the rule of wise emperors. They were the models of his doctrine. Confucius and his pupils went from princely court to princely court, laughed at and chased away by rulers who liked to hear about their subjects’ duty to obey, but not about their own duties under the »mandate of heaven«. He died poor and unhappy. His writings were destroyed in the burning of the books under the »Great Emperor« Qin Shihuangdi in 213 B.C. During the following Han dynasty (206 B.C. –220 A.D.) they were transcribed, i.e. reconstructed from memory or from fragments which had been hidden in walls or buried in the ground and became official state doctrine. Only later, during following dynasties, were the teachings of the master developed into a general system of values, a law of ethics applicable to everybody. This condemned »exaggerated« individualism and emphasised the importance of family, education, hard work, propriety and thrift.

      Confucius’ teachings, as a corner-stone of society, have influenced the culture, life and ethics of China. They have also spread to countries such as Korea, Japan and Vietnam over the centuries so that he has exerted more influence than any other person in any other country in the world. Confucius and his doctrines were highly respected. The writings, particularly the »Analects« or »Lun Yu«, the conversations of Confucius as recorded by his pupils, belong to the classics and were the main subject in state examinations of future mandarins for over two thousand years. They reflect the cardinal virtues of Confucian society: humanity, justice, morality, wisdom and loyalty. The palace of the Confucius family in Qufu was granted the special privilege of a yellow roof (the imperial colour) and was richly endowed by emperors of all dynasties. The granite columns, still visible today, are so beautifully carved with dragon motifs that they were covered with cloth when the emperor was visiting, lest the Son of Heaven, whose palace in the Forbidden City was not so richly decorated, should be envious. Unfortunately many treasures of the palace were destroyed by hordes of Mao’s Young Guards during the Cultural Revolution.

      Recently even China’s communist rulers have rehabilitated the master. The government now recommends a reconsideration of the old values of Confucianism, in an attempt to discipline the newly rich profiteers and smugglers of the »socialist market economy«.

      Respect for one’s elders was a sensible attitude in an agrarian land where older people knew better the complex system of cultivation and irrigation. They were taken notice of, consulted and honoured. This respect for old age goes so far that in good Confucian tradition young men today still take off their spectacles when talking to their elders, so that they can look unhindered into their eyes. A story in Bette Bao Lord’s beautiful book »Spring Moon« seems to me a good example of Confucian influenced attitudes to life; »A blind storyteller describes a family of four fleeing the scourge of the barbarians from the north. Soon the son and the nephew were too weak to walk. The father could carry only one and asked the mother to choose who should be left behind. The virtuous mother said, ›Let it be our son. We can have another. But your brother is dead, and his only son must live to feed his spirit in the other world.‹«

      The representation of Confucius above is purely artistic fantasy. No pictures were handed down from his lifetime. Glass snuff bottle painted from inside, 7 cm.

Klaus G. Muller

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