Kongzi 孔子 (Master Kong) was born Kong Qiu 孔丘 in Lu 鲁 (now central and southwestern Shandong 山东 Province in China), a small vassal state on the eastern frontier of the Zhou 周dynasty, sometime during the middle of the 6th century BCE (c. 551 BCE). His birthday is commemorated on 28 September, although there is no proof that this is his actual date of birth. Like other historical figures of antiquity around whom legends formed, Kongzi is someone whose tale grew taller in the telling after his death (traditionally dated 479 BCE). A number of early Chinese texts claim to present biographical information concerning both Kongzi and his teachings; foremost among these is the Lunyu 论语 (Ordered Sayings), better known to Western readers as the Analects. According to some sources, he was a descendant of the royal family of Shang 商, whose dynasty preceded the Zhou, and later traditions proclaimed him a godlike prodigy whose birth was accompanied by miracles. According to other traditions, however, Kongzi was orphaned early in life, raised by his mother in poverty, and educated to take his place among the shi 士, or scholar-retainers who served the courts of Zhou vassals. Accounts of his official employment vary and include a wide array of positions, ranging from law enforcement and divination to humbler pursuits such as accounting and shepherding. What is certain is that he was a humanistic teacher of Zhou ceremonies, ethics, and literature, whose disciples formed the core of what eventually became the “Confucian” or Ru 儒 tradition, which in turn came to dominate and define what it meant to be civilized—not only in China, but across East Asia and the East Asian diaspora. Chief among his concerns seem to have been moral development, ritual practice, and social harmony, which he appears to have viewed as intertwined. Known in the West as “Confucius” (a Latinization of the honorific title Kongfuzi 孔夫子, “Revered Master Kong”) since the 16th century CE, he has become the de facto mascot of Chinese and Chinese-influenced civilizations, used to signify cultural authenticity, traditional authority, and national identity by governments, intellectuals, and communities. Kongzi and his legacies continue to be both valued and debated by contemporary people interested in the perennial problems of personal probity, political integrity, social stability, and traditional Chinese and East Asian identity.
General Overviews and Historical Context
Introductions to Confucius and his thought tend to privilege history (Pines 2002; Riegel 2013; Schwartz 1985; Watson, et al. 1999), philosophy (Goldin 2011 [cited under Confucius, Kinship, and Gender], Graham 1989, Van Norden 2011), or religion (Richey 2003, Tu 1985, Yao 2000) as their primary category of analysis, although Cheng 1993 adopts a traditional literary, form-critical approach to the text that allegedly represents Confucius’s thought. Richey 2003; Riegel 2013; Watson, et al. 1999; and to a lesser extent Graham 1989 provide overviews of Confucius’s context and ideas through excerpts from the Analects and other primary sources. Goldin 2011 (cited under Confucius, Kinship, and Gender), Pines 2002, Schwartz 1985, and Van Norden 2011 are more straightforwardly explanatory introductions. Tu 1985 stands apart from the other sources listed here by virtue of being a work that constructs a Confucian philosophy as much as it describes one. Graham 1989 probably provides the fullest contextual account of Confucius’s ideas as part of a diverse early Chinese intellectual landscape, Van Norden 2011 offers the clearest framework for thinking about Confucius as a philosopher on his own, and Schwartz 1985 most completely situates Confucius in his cultural-historical milieu.
Cheng, Anne. “Lun-yü.” In Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide. Edited by Michael Loewe, 313–323. Berkeley, CA: Society for the Study of Early China, 1993.
Encyclopedic overview of the Analects, including its content, date of composition, authorship, textual history, manuscript copies, critical editions, and translations, with indices in Chinese, Japanese, English, and French.
Denecke, Wiebke. The Dynamics of Masters Literature: Early Chinese Thought from Confucius to Han Feizi. Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph 74. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.
Chapter 2, “Scenes of Instruction and Master Bodies in the Analects” (pp. 90–127), is a close reading of the Analects, here understood as an example of “Masters [zi 子] literature” from early China, that situates the text in a family of traditions about Confucius that developed from oral lore into written compilation during the 2nd century BCE under imperial sponsorship. Denecke argues that this explains the Analects’ overwhelming attention to the details of personal conduct and disinterest in explicating doctrine.
Graham, A. C. “A Conservative Reaction: Confucius.” In Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China. By A. C. Graham, 9–32. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1989.
Part of a philosophically oriented general introduction to early Chinese thought. Focuses on Confucius’s ideas in relation to their rivals in pre-Qin 秦 dynasty China’s diverse discourse community.
Pines, Yuri. Foundations of Confucian Thought: Intellectual Life in the Chunqiu Period, 722–453 B.C.E. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2002.
Analyzes texts written between the fall of the Western Zhou 周 dynasty (c. 771 BCE) and Confucius’s lifetime as “foundations” for the development of Confucius’s ideas, especially the concepts of de 德 (virtue, or moral charisma), junzi 君子 (gentleman, or profound person), and xiao 孝 (filial piety).
Richey, Jeffrey L. “Confucius.” In The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by James Fieser and Bradley Dowden. 2003.
Philosophical and religious overview of Confucius’s ideas that emphasizes the fluidity of the categories “philosophy” and “religion” when applied to early Chinese thought. Less detailed, but more focused on ideas and themes, than Riegel 2013.
Riegel, Jeffrey. “Confucius.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2013.
Historical and literary overview of Confucius’s ideas that presents him in his early Chinese cultural context. Less focused on ideas and themes, but more focused on historical and textual details, than Richey 2003.
Schwartz, Benjamin. “The Vision of the Analects.” In The World of Thought in Ancient China. By Benjamin Schwartz, 56–134. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1985.
Chapter 3 provides an excellent historical overview of early Chinese thought. While this chapter does not focus as much as Graham 1989 on placing Confucius in conversation with his rivals, it does provide a strong sense of his cultural-historical context and clearly presents his main ideas.
Tu Wei-ming. Confucian Thought: Selfhood as Creative Transformation. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985.
This anthology of Tu’s early essays in English provides a comprehensive overview of his stance on both early and later Confucian traditions. Because Tu’s work, which draws heavily on Western religious terminology, has both descriptive and prescriptive relationships to Confucian thought, it should be read as both a critical evaluation of Confucian tradition and a constructive proposal for how to think in Confucian terms in the contemporary era.
Van Norden, Bryan W. Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2011.
Chapters 1 and 2 (pp. 1–17, 18–33) provide valuable context for thinking about Confucius in terms of Zhou dynasty history, myth, and literature, while placing Confucius in his social context and categorizing his main ideas using a fivefold thematic pattern.
Watson, Burton, David S. Nivison, and Irene Bloom. “Classical Sources of Chinese Tradition.” In Sources of Chinese Tradition. 2d ed. Vol. 1. Edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 24–40. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
Translation of excerpts from the “Confucian” classics, such as the Shujing 书经 (Classic of Documents) and Shijing 诗经 (Classic of Poetry), that form the basis of the Confucian literary canon and seem to have inspired much of Confucius’s thought, prefaced by general introduction to Zhou dynasty literary, political, and religious culture.
Yao Xinzhong. An Introduction to Confucianism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Follows Tu 1985 in characterizing Confucius and most of his successors as religious humanists. Offers a much more comprehensive overview of Confucian traditions than Goldin 2011 (cited under Confucius, Kinship, and Gender), but presents Confucianism as a singular if varied tradition, rather than as a set of historical lineages that developed and differed over time.
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