What Confucius Really Said

Confucius' simple burial mound

From intense parent-child bonds to–perhaps?–a tolerance for authority,* mainstream Chinese culture bears the Great Sage’s powerful imprint. His home was Qufu, an overnight trainride from Beijing. (*Highly contentious statement.)
Chinese friends we were with knew the ’24 Virtuous [Filial] Duties’ that Confucius says children must do for their parents:
– Give them medicine yourself (don’t have a servant do it).
– Give them your coat in winter.
– Carry rice for them.
– Give them deer milk. (I’ve begun upbraiding mine over this: ‘Again today no deer milk?’)
– Entertain them.
– Be brave enough to kill a tiger if it’s endangering them.
– Carry them on your back on a hard road.
– Guard their tombs.
– If mosquitoes are biting them at night, remove your clothes and sleep naked [so they’ll bite you].
But things get worse:
– If you get promoted to a high rank but the position is far away, say no [to the job].
– Taste shit to show your subjugation.
– Wash their chamberpot with your own hands.
– If one of your siblings dies, bury the child for your parents.
And finally:
– If they die and you don’t have the money for burial, sell yourself [into slavery].












(The Confucius Temple incorporates ‘pen’-like decorations; for the kids  the temple was a slide.)

Along with Confucian filial piety, his love of learning is a commonplace. China still venerates educators–even at the bank, where teachers are almost guaranteed mortgage approval.

Confucius valued knowledge,but not fame: “I will not be afflicted at men not knowing me; I will be afflicted that I do not know men.” (All the quotes are from our little children’s translation of some of The Analects.)

I teach, but never studied educational pedagogy. The visit offered many lessons: “The Master said, Not until he is eager to know, but feels difficulty, do I instruct; not until he wants to speak out, but fails to express himself, do I enlighten. If I present him one corner and he cannot from it infer the other three, I do not continue the lesson.”

And: “There are sprouts which can spring up but never flower; there are others which can flower but never bear fruit.”

Confucius wandered during his life, disappointed with various government jobs where people wouldn’t take his advice. He responds: “Is he not a man of lofty virtue who feels no annoyance though no one understands him?”


Confucius says your train’s on time.

He had faith in government, that it could – would, might — through virtue, win loyalty & achieve peace. But what if it doesn’t govern virtuously? Then he scorned it. But he scorned business even more: “The Master said, a superior man has a complete understanding of righteousness; the small man has a complete understanding of profit.”

Yet he became a source of power and profit after he died. High officials began marrying their daughters to Confucius’ descendants. Soon his thatched hut was a mansion beside the increasingly grand temple, as they linked their rule to his growing reputation. Though in his lifetime, the Sage would accept “no better present than a bundle of dried meat.”

Confucius can seem fastidious,a  perfectionist: An old, illustrated mural of his life at the temple says he played one song on an instrument for 10 days, though people begged him to stop, until he grasped it. Protocol violations drove him crazy — like vulgar music played at a diplomatic occasion. He hated utensils improperly arrayed. “Have no friends not equal to yourself,” the Master said.  He can seem priggish, like when he’s annoyed that people love beautiful girls more than virtue. Yet for Confucius ‘propriety’ wasn’t manners; it was a social contract, personal creed:

“Respectfulness, without the rules of propriety, becomes fussiness; caution, without the rules of propriety, becomes timidity; daring, without the rules of propriety, becomes turbulence; straightforwardness without the rules of propriety becomes harshness.”

And he could be ruthless, too, against the self: “When you have faults, do not fear to abandon them.” (And if you’ve been psychoanalyzed, you have to appreciate that word – “fear.”)

Confucius & family cemetery











Late in life, Confucius pondered the ages of man—a progression toward freedom, which he said could be ever-better exercised within (–despite? thanks to?–) constraint:

“Since the age of 15, I have devoted myself to learning; since 30, I have been well established; since 40, I have understood many things and have no longer been confused; since 50, I have known my heaven-sent duty; since 60, I have been able to distinguish right and wrong in other people’s words; and since 70, I have been able to do what I intend freely without breaking the rules.”

It resonates so for human life …while at the same time echos current language on China’s supposed-yet-not-really-happening progress toward liberalization. “Free[dom]…without breaking the rules”…

In his last days,  Confucius collated ancient documents, became a vegetarian, and prayed to the Big Dipper. He had amassed 3,000 disciples. Before he died, a rainbow turned into jade, which he received– a sign he was divine.








On the temple’s central hall’s main shrine, it’s painted: “He can be taught for 10,000 years.” The children we were with had been taught, and recited, their Confucius. Later we saw he was also selling liquor … and dream-interpretation videos.







Before we left, a Confucian poet-calligrapher in a shop there composed and painted, on-the-spot, this Confucian verse for our friend’s 7-year-old son:

Spring willow in the breeze. Teacher on a platform.

Don’t be distracted by nature. Base yourself in knowledge.

Your journey will be smooth. You’ll have a great prospect (a pun: your career & a view over a landscape).

Earth and sky are wide. You’re free.

If you’re really virtuous, you’re in control of everything.

Confucius says, Nice new Atticus Finch glasses, David!

One comment on “What Confucius Really Said

  1. […] from a monastery in holy WuTai Shan, a Confucian saying picked off the sidewalk in his birthplace, Qufu, Shandong…and finally (photo above right), a bit of an odyssey but he tracked down a Taoist […]


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