Confucius’ journey to various nation-states
In the spring of 497 BC Confucius left the State of Lu and began his journey to other nation-states, a journey that was to last for fourteen years. He was joined on this trek by many of his loyal disciples.
At first Confucius traveled westward to the State of Wei, then moving to visit and live in the states of Jingwei, Cao, Song, Chen, and Chu, finally returning to Wei in 488 BC.
Confucius’ disciples also returned to regions close to the states of Lu and Wei; many of them joined the government and achieved outstanding accomplishments in these states. Because of this, in 484 BC the prime minister of the State of Lu sent envoys to Wei and invited Confucius to return to Lu. Thus, Confucius returned to his homeland of Lu at the age of 68.
Confucius had to overcome many challenges during his long journey. On several occasions he found himself caught in life-threatening situations or ravaged by poverty and hunger. While traveling from the State of Chen to the State of Cai, he was stranded in the open country for as long as seven days. Due to lack of food, many of his disciples fell ill and were too feeble to continue the journey. When Confucius’ disciple Zhongtian saw how his friends and schoolmates suffered from hunger, he asked his teacher indignantly, “Should a gentleman suffer the same poverty as a scoundrel?” to which Confucius replied, “A gentleman behaves with integrity even when faced with great poverty, but a scoundrel would commit crimes and misdemeanors.” Confucius certainly felt the threat of death just as his disciples did; but instead of losing faith he held strongly to his principles and insisted on spreading his teachings across different states.
There were many who were able to understand Confucius’ principles and beliefs. During his journey he continued his teachings and met many individuals who respected and admired his behavior and ethics. An official from Yi in the State of Wei paid a special visit to Confucius and told those around him, “This man carries Heaven’s message to show the world how men should live by morals and ethics.” Nevertheless, Confucius’ teachings were not always accepted. Along their journey, Confucius and his disciples met many sages living in seclusion who objected to Confucius’ actions. One of them said to Zhongtian, “The world is in a state of chaos. Do you think anyone could change that? Instead of following a person who cannot get along with other people, why not follow a person who does not interfere in human affairs?” When Confucius heard this he replied, “I cannot join the beasts and the birds, if I do not remain around people, who else would I remain with? If the world was a perfect place filled with the Tao, I would not need to change it at all.”
The above passage describes Confucius’ thoughts during his journey through various nation-states. It would have been easy for him to seek employment at one of the courts given his knowledge and skills, but he wanted to do something that would benefit the people and better the world; so he travelled long and far despite the hardships. Accepting popular beliefs and catering to those in power might have been an easy path to luxury and wealth, whereas maintaining one’s beliefs and going against conventions could only lead to a more difficult life. But Confucius’ life-long concern was for himself, but for the greater good of the people. Although he did not succeed in finding a nation-state where he could carry out his ideals for reform, his journey through many states allowed him to spread his teachings and beliefs beyond the borders of Lu.
Review by Su-Fen Lin and Timothy Baker Jr.