In all the greatest cultures of the world, there have been prominent teachers, leaders and reformers who are still honoured and revered to this day. From amongst those of the Chinese tradition, one man stands foremost, and that is Confucius, the great sage, teacher and reformer, who was born in 551 B.C. At that time, China was divided into five or six thousand self-governing states. Confucius was born in the state of Lu, which occupied part of the modern province known as Shantung.
At a very early age, Confucius showed signs of extraordinary ability and had his mind set upon learning. However, when his father died, the family was plunged into poverty, and to improve his circumstances, Confucius had to follow the only avenue open to a young man at that time - he took political office. He became an official in Lu, and by the time he was fifty, had attained high rank. As an administrator, he had the reputation of being a zealous reformer, who did not hesitate to attack and sweep away old established abuses and outdated customs. As a scholar, he mastered history and philosophy. He had also founded an academy where he expounded the principles of right conduct and government.
Just when everything seemed to point to a prosperous career for Confucius, a sudden revolution in the state of Lu forced him to resign and go into exile. For many years, it seems he travelled from state to state looking for the opportunity to put his ideas on political reform into practice and transform some lord's kingdom into Utopia. He had little success, if indeed this was his real aim. For during these years of travel he taught and inspired many people and moved amidst the company of eager disciples who treasured every word he uttered and studied every move he made.
With the equanimity of a true saint, Confucius was constant in suffering as in times of prosperity. Sad and angry at seeing his master inadequately clothed and without food, a disciple once asked, "Must the superior man endure like this?" "The superior man may have to endure want", came the tranquil reply, "but he is still the superior man. The small man in similar circumstances loses his self-command."
Confucius was actually the first person in China to have a following of private students, possibly amounting to several thousand over the years. His approach to teaching was highly significant. He used the existing Chinese cultural classics (the best known being the 'I - Ching', for his teaching material, but obviously he brought them to life from the depth of his own experience and intuition. Thus, in his own estimation, he was a 'channel' rather than an 'innovator'. In his teaching he emphasised righteousness - correct behaviour based on duty, which in turn is based on one's situation in society.
Unlike his distinguished contemporary, Lao Tze, the philosopher and founder of Taoism, who was a renunciate, idealist and mystic, Confucius was the rare combination of an idealist and practical business man. Whereas Lao Tze believed in a supreme being, Confucius, who was more earthly minded, never acknowledged a personal God. Confucius was neither interested in where man came from or where his soul departed to after death. Of himself he said, "I have striven to become a man of perfect virtue and to teach others without weariness," His ideal was "the superior man carrying out in his conduct what he professes."
Confucius died in 478 B.C. at the age of 73. A few years before his death he retired to a peaceful valley in Lu where he composed the 'Ch'un Chi'u King', or book of 'Spring and Autumn', a collection of annals covering a period of 242 years. Since the death of Confucius, a whole school of philosophy has developed from his teachings, and his fame and reputation have spread throughout the world. To some he was a God, to others a remarkable administrator, a great reformer, the first teacher or the supreme teacher. So, in both the sphere of politics and the field of learning, Confucius enlightened the minds of millions of men, and to this day he is still regarded as one of the world's greatest preceptors.