Confucius is a name that most people will instantly recognise, but are unable to quote any of his sayings.
Quite a strange thing, considering the cultural impact that he left on Chinese customs and beliefs.
The man, whose Chinese name was Kong Qiu, lived during the violent Warring States period (475 – 221 BC), before the Unification of China under Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi.
At a time of great political turbulence and instability, Confucius preached compassion and honesty, cementing his reputation as one of China’s greatest scholars.
He was born into a noble family in 551 BC, but after his military officer father’s untimely passing, his mother had to raise him in poverty.
This difficult childhood allowed him to empathise with the daily hardships of the common folk.
The future philosopher had little choice but to work at measly jobs as a sheep herder and later a bookkeeper among other odd jobs.
At 19, he fell in love with a woman named Qiguan and together, they had three children, two of whom survived to adulthood.
The Kong clan, descendants of Confucius, have maintained family records for over 2,500 years and are said to be past the 83rd generation.
His mother passed away when he was 23 years old and he mourned for three years as was the tradition then.
His luck changed for the better when a wealthy friend sponsored his studies and helped him to enroll at the Royal Archives, which shaped how he saw the world.
Inspired by the manuscripts at the archives, Confucius believed that family and education played a key role in shaping human character.
People would then be philanthropic to others and guide them through being a moral example themselves.
Later while advising the Duke of his home state of Lu, Confucius left in a huff when the Duke abandoned his administrative duties for more earthly pleasures.
Holding fast to his principles, Confucius wandered China seeking employment in the royal courts.
He tried to persuade rulers to lead their people not through fear, punishment or military might but to lead through moral example.
Confucius was an ardent believer that because family values are the most important, the family sometimes mattered more than the state.
In one instance, a Duke boasted about the loyalty of his subjects when a son reported his own sheep-stealing father to the authorities.
In response, Confucius said that ideally, the father and son should have protected each other.
His belief in familial structure has long influenced Chinese culture and views on the upbringing of children.
He believed that every family member has a role to play and that while children should be filial to their parents, the parents too must be benevolent in return.
Despite his strong insistence on filial piety, Confucius said that blind obedience should not be encouraged.
“When the command is wrong, a son should resist his father, and a minister his august master.”
His views on women were diverse; he held the conservative belief that a woman ought to be obedient to the men in her life.
At the same time, he encouraged education for women and suggested that they be allowed to learn martial arts, saying that strong and capable women improved society as a whole.
Interestingly enough, Confucius viewed merchants in a negative light, arguing that they profited off the fruits of others’ labour.
His travels throughout China was difficult, nearly starving at times, suffering imprisonment once and even having his life threatened.
Despite this, he remained confident that heaven ultimately had a plan for the world and he encouraged people of morals to seek pleasure through learning and music.
After concluding his journey, Confucius became a teacher whose words would leave a massive impact on Chinese culture.
For followers of Confucius, or Confucians, he is the epitome of moral virtue and his teachings were collected and compiled into a book called “The Analects”.
His words have been subjected to long philosophical discussions since then.
While some people mistake Confucianism to be a religion or a philosophy, it is more accurate to call it a model of behaviour.
Confucius, when asked to sum up his own teachings, simply said, “Do not inflict upon others that which you yourself would not want.”
Wise words that still hold much relevance millennia after his passing.