According to tradition, Confucius was born in the state of Lu (present-day Shandong Province) of the noble K’ung clan. His original name was K’ung Ch’iu. His father, commander of a district in Lu, died three years after Confucius was born, leaving the family in poverty, but Confucius nevertheless received a fine education.
He was married at the age of 19 and had one son and two daughters. During the four years immediately after his marriage, poverty compelled him to become a sevant for the chief of the district in which he lived. His mother died in 527 BC, and after a period of mourning he began his career as a teacher, usually traveling about and instructing the small body of disciples that had gathered around him. His fame as a man of learning and character and his reverence for Chinese ideals and customs soon spread through the principality of Lu.
Living as he did in the second half of the Zhou (Chou) dynasty (1027?-256 BC), when feudalism degenerated in China and conspiracy and evildoing were constant, Confucius deplored the contemporary disorder and lack of moral standards. He came to believe that the only remedy was to convert people once more to the principles of the sages of antiquity. He therefore lectured to his pupils on the ancient classics. He taught the great value of the power of example. Rulers, he said, can be great only if they themselves lead free lives, and were they willing to be guided by moral principles, their states would sure become prosperous and happy.
Confucius had, however, no opportunity to put his theories to a public test until, at the age of 50, he was appointed magistrate of Chung-tu, and the next year minister of crime of the state of Lu. His administration was successful; reforms were introduced, justice was fairly dispensed, and crime was almost eliminated. So powerful that Lu became the ruler of a neighboring state maneuvered to secure the minister’s dismissal. Confucius left his office in 496 BC, traveling about and teaching, vainly hoping that some other prince would allow him to undertake measures of reform. In 484 BC, after a fruitless search for an ideal ruler, he returned for the last time to Lu. He spent the remaining years of his life in retirement, writing commentaries on the classics. He died in Lu and was buried in a tomb at Ch’ü-fu, Shandong.
Confucius did not put into writing the principles of his philosophy. These were handed down only through his disciples. The Lun Yü (Analects), a work compiled by some of his disciples, is considered the most reliable source of information about his life and teachings. One of the historical works that he is said to have compiled and edited, the Chunqiu (Spring and Autumn Annals), is an annalistic account of Chinese history in the state of Lu from 722 to 481 BC. In learning he wished to be known as a transmitter rather than as a creator, and he therefore revived the study of the ancient books. His own teachings, together with those of his main disciples, are found in the Shih Shu (Four Books) of Confucian literature, which became the textbooks of later Chinese generations. Confucius was greatly known during his lifetime and in succeeding ages. Although he himself had little belief in the supernatural, he has been revered almost as a spiritual being by millions.
The entire teaching of Confucius was practical and ethical, rather than religious. He claimed to be a restorer of ancient morality and held that proper outward acts based on the five virtues of kindness, uprightness, decorum, wisdom, and faithfulness constitute the whole of human duty. Reverence for parents, living and dead, was one of his key concepts. His view of government was paternalistic, and he enjoined all individuals to observe carefully their duties toward the state. In subsequent centuries his teachings exerted a powerful influence on the Chinese nation.