It's impossible to live in China without stumbling upon Confucius, Chinese philosopher and founder of Confucianism. After a month in Beijing, I had visited the Confucius Temple in the capital, attended a ballet depicting the philosopher's life, and even talked about him several times. He kept on surfacing in every conversation about Chinese culture.
I was ashamed of knowing so little about the man who appeared to be so important for the Chinese. But my ignorance delighted my friends, who were always ready to explain the significance of the figure and what he means for them. "The Chinese know about Confucius from the time their awareness develops, from the age of 3 or 4 years,?said my friend Chao Chao.
I quickly perceived the pride at the mention of Kung Fu-tzu, meaning "Grandmaster Kung" in Chinese, the honorific title by which Confucius was addressed. And the pride is understandable, given that Confucius, born in 551 B.C. in the State of Lu, which lies in today's Shandong, a province in east China, is considered one of the prime actors of what German-Swiss philosopher Karl Jaspers called the "Axial Age," a golden age for philosophy between 800 B.C. and 300 B.C. when new ways of humanistic thinking appeared around the globe.
Among the other enlightened humans we find the Buddha, Plato and Zoroaster. According to French-Chinese sinologist Anne Cheng, the popularity of Confucius?philosophy can be explained by its accessibility: "It is precisely because the Confucian way is within the reach of everyone that it can be construed as universal."
I was soon to understand that Confucianism is also a way of life, an individual morality. Confucius teaches us "What is right," explained Chao Chao. Confucius believed that man is perfectible. By studying and exchanging thoughts with others, we become junzi, a "superior person." This development has a sacred nature since for constant individual improvement one has to follow the celestial way, which is the origin of every good.
In the disintegrating feudal society that Confucius lived in, the concept that there was no distinction between man and man was a real novelty. Confucius?life explains his views. He grew up in an aristocratic but poor family and owed his success to a good education. From a very young age, he worked for the State of Lu, even becoming minister of justice.
When in his 50s, Confucius left Lu, tired of the political bickering and compromises. He traveled for more than a decade, hoping to find a ruler willing to follow his way. The ideal sovereign imposes his authority by benevolence, not strength, Cheng writes in her book History of Chinese Thought. The ruler, who possesses virtue, or de, harmonizes society.
But Confucius did not find that ideal ruler. His contemporaries describe him as one who persisted in wanting to save the world but was well aware it's a lost cause. Confucius died at the age of 73, believing he had failed in his sacred mission.
But Confucius' words live on. As Confucian scholar Roger T. Ames writes, "One cannot talk about Chineseness, even today, 2,500 years later, without reference to this particular man, Confucius.?Confucianism dominated the political thought during the era of emperors and though it lost that place in the 19th century, Confucian values are still very much present in Chinese society and the admiration for Confucius?work is obvious.
An enthusiastic audience applauded the ballet company performing Confucius, based on the life of the master philosopher, at Poly Theater in Beijing on January 10. And when it was announced that the choreographer, Kong Dexin, was a descendant of Confucius, the applause became a thunderous ovation.