Great Educators in History (VI): Confucius

It’s time we left Europe to meet one of the most influential figures in Chinese history and culture. This week in our series Great Educators in History we introduce you to Confucius – a great teacher who not only inspired a philosophy that endures today but established an entire way of life.

The Early Life of Confucius

The early life of Confucius is layered in legends and differing opinions. We can roughly place him inside ancient Chinese state of Lu and trace his life between 551-479 BCE. His biography is documented in three different historical records: the Analects, the Zuozhuan and the Mengzi. The Analects focus on his life as morally driven through struggle and poverty. The Zuozhuan records frame Confucius as a hero fighting for good of the Lu state. The Mengzi paints him into the life of politics seeking rewards and a powerful place in office. Perhaps all of these perspectives have a bit of truth to them, but it is clear enough that Confucius’ teaching and life have lives of their own and there is certainly a reason why he became legendary.

Confucian teachings1024px-Konfuzius-1770 (1)

“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

Confucius was a philosopher, teacher and politician, and believed in the values of self-discipline, humility and compassion. The three main ethical concepts from Confucian teaching are ren, jian ai and li. Ren promotes acts of altruism, and more or less translates to “compassion” and caring for others outside of yourself. Along similar lines, jian ai means “universal love” – or love for everyone without partiality. This stresses that you should be fair to all those around you, but rather than being a selfless act, it is grounded in the idea that jian ai will pay off for you in the long run. Li is embodied in the act of self-restraint, including reverence for tradition, ritual and social etiquette.

Confucian political philosophy guides political institutions and leaders. Two central concepts are zhengming and de. Zhengming was a solution for creating social order through proper and fitting titles, definitions, names and social behaviours. This way, from aristocrats to farmers, people would know their role in society and understand social reality. De refers to “virtue” or moral character. Rulers should rule by virtue, often enacted through rituals. It is through rituals, for example, as well as through general conduct, that a ruler maintains integrity, honour and respect. This virtue is meant to offset greed, selfishness or carelessness, and maintain a strong and humane society.

The most widely known example of Confucian-based educational philosophy this is the “Six Arts” — ritual, music, archery, chariot-riding, calligraphy and mathematics. The Six Arts were meant to build a balanced and strong individual, training them in the fine arts (calligraphy, music), combat (archery, chariot-riding), mathematics and civic duties (ritual). A person who masters the Six Arts is considered to be the perfect member of society. Again, the Six Arts embody the Confucian values of ritual, self-discipline and social etiquette, but on the most basic level, it reflects the Confucian belief that education can foster strong leaders, societies and individuals.

Finding Confucius today

Setting aside the true life and education of Confucius, the influence of his teachings is clear. Upon his death, it is claimed that he felt as if he had failed to make an impact or receive support, however imperial China would come to adopt Confucianism as its core philosophy. Confucius would become the most influential teacher in Chinese history and inseparable from the culture and thought of China today. Having been translated and shared over the last 400 years, Confucian ideas are known and continue to be studied worldwide. One good example of how his teachings cross both time and place is “the Golden Rule”. In line with his value of ren, according to Confucius this means: What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others. The same rule can be found in religious Hindu, Islamic and Christian texts, as well as in ancient Roman and Egyptian discourse. Therefore, perhaps it is safe to say that Confucius can be viewed not only as a central figure in China but amongst the greatest educators in world history.


  • Confucius. [Internet]. 2014. The website. Available from: [Accessed 15 Apr 2014].
  • Legge, James. 1909. The Chinese Classics. Available from: [Accessed 20 Apr 2014].
  • Littlejohn, Ronnie. 2010. Confucianism: An Introduction. IB Tauris.
  • Riegel, Jeffrey. “Confucius”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Available from: [Accessed 18 Apr 2014].

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