Historical Tales: 12—Japanese and Chinese - Charles Morris

Confucius, the Chinese Sage

In the later years of the Chow dynasty appeared the two greatest thinkers that China ever produced, Laoutse, the first and ablest philosopher of his race, and Confucius, a practical thinker and reformer who has had few equals in the world. Of Laoutse we know little. Born 604 B.C., in humble life, he lived in retirement, and when more than a hundred years old began a journey to the west and vanished from history. To the guardian of the pass through which he sought the western regions he gave a book which contained the thoughts of his life. This forms the Bible of the Taouistic religion, which still has a large following in China.

Confucius, or Kong-foo-tse, born 551 B.C., was as practical in intellect as Laoutse was mystical, and has exerted an extraordinary influence upon the Chinese race. For this reason it seems important to give some account of his career.

The story of his life exists in some detail, and may be given in epitome. As a child he was distinguished for his respect to older people, his gentleness, modesty, and quickness of intellect. At nineteen he married and was made a mandarin, being appointed superintendent of the markets, and afterwards placed in charge of the public fields, the sheep and cattle. His industry was remarkable, and so great were his improvements in agriculture that the whole face of the country changed, and plenty succeeded poverty.

At twenty-two he became a public teacher, and at thirty began the study of music, making such remarkable progress in this art that from the study of one piece he was able to describe the person of the composer, even to his features and the expression of his eyes. His teacher now gave him up. The pupil had passed infinitely beyond his reach. At the next important epoch in the life of Confucius (499 B.C.) he had become one of the chief ministers of the king of Loo. This potentate fell into a dispute with the rival king of Tsi, and an interview between the two kings took place, in which a scheme of treachery devised by the king of Tsi was baffled by the vigilance and courage of the learned minister of Loo.

But, the high precepts of Confucius proving too exalted for the feeble virtue of his kingly employer, the philosopher soon left his service, and entered upon a period of travel and study, teaching the people as he went, and constantly attended by a number of disciples. His mode of illustrating his precepts is indicated in an interesting anecdote. "As he was journeying, one day he saw a woman weeping and wailing by a grave. Confucius inquired the cause of her grief. 'You weep as if you had experienced sorrow upon sorrow,' said one of the attendants of the sage. The woman answered, 'It is so: my husband's father was killed here by a tiger, and my husband also; and now my son has met the same fate.' 'Why do you not leave the place?' asked Confucius. On her replying, 'There is here no oppressive government,' he turned to his disciples and said, 'My children, remember this,—oppressive government is more cruel than a tiger.'"

On another of their journeys they ran out of food, and one of the disciples, faint with hunger, asked the sage, "Must the superior man indeed suffer in this way?" "The superior man may have to suffer want," answered Confucius, "but the mean man, when he is in want, gives way to unbridled license." The last five years of his life were spent in Loo, his native state, in teaching and in finishing the works he had long been writing.

Confucius was no philosopher in the ordinary sense. He was a moral teacher, but devised no system of religion, telling his disciples that the demands of this world were quite enough to engage the thoughts of men, and that the future might be left to provide for itself. He cared nothing about science and studied none of the laws of nature, but devoted himself to the teaching of the principles of conduct, with marked evidence of wisdom and practical common sense.

Of all the great men who have lived upon the earth, conquerors, writers, inventors, and others, none have gained so wide a renown as this quiet Chinese moral teacher, whose fame has reached the ears of more millions of mankind than that of any other man who has ever lived. To-day his descendants form the only hereditary nobility in China, with the exception of those of his great disciple Mencius, who proved a worthy successor to the sage.

It is to Confucius that we owe nearly all we possess of the early literature of China. Of what are known as the "Five Classics," four are by his hand. The "Book of Changes," the oldest classic, was written by a mystic named Wan Wang, who lived about 1150 B.C. It is highly revered, but no one pretends to understand it. The works of Confucius include the "Book of History," the "Book of Odes," the "Book of Rites," and the "Spring and Autumn Annals," all of them highly esteemed in China for the knowledge they give of ancient days and ways.

The records of the early dynasties kept at the imperial court were closely studied by Confucius, who selected from them all that he thought worth preserving. This he compiled into the Shoo King, or "Book of History." The contents of this work we have condensed in the preceding tale. It consists mainly of conversations between the kings and their ministers, in which the principles of the patriarchal Chinese government form the leading theme. "Do not be ashamed of mistakes, and thus make them crimes," says one of these practical ministers.

The Le-ke, or "Book of Rites," compiled from a very ancient work, lays down exact rules of life for Chinamen, which are still minutely obeyed. The Chun Tsew, or "Spring and Autumn Annals," embraces a mere statement of events which occurred in the kingdom of Loo, and contains very little of historical and less of any other value. The "Book of Odes," on the contrary, possesses a great literary value, in preserving for us the poetic remains of ancient China.

Literature in that country, as elsewhere, seems to have begun with poetry, and of the songs and ballads of the early period official collections of considerable value were made. Not only at the imperial court, but at those of the feudal lords, there were literati whose duty it was to collect the songs of the people and diligently to preserve the historical records of the empire. From the latter Confucius compiled two of the books already named. There also fell into his hands an official collection of poems containing some three thousand pieces. These the sage carefully edited, selecting such of them as "would be serviceable for the inculcation of propriety and righteousness." These poems, three hundred and eleven in number, constitute the She King, or "Book of Odes," forming a remarkable collection of primitive verses which breathe the spirit of peace and simple life, broken by few sounds of war or revelry, but yielding many traces of family affection, peaceful repose, and religious feeling.

These are not the only remains of the ancient Chinese literature. There are four more books, which, with the five named, make up the "Nine Classics." These were written by the pupils and disciples of Confucius, the most important being the Mang tsze, or "Works of Mencius." They are records of the sayings and doings of the two sages Confucius and Mencius, whose remarkable precepts, like those of the Greek sage Socrates, would have been lost to the world but for the loving diligence of their disciples.

All this is not history in the ordinary name. But the men described, and particularly Confucius, have had so potent an influence upon all that relates to Chinese life and history, that some brief account of them and their doings seemed indispensable to our work.