Passing Down the Teachings of Confucius
Confucius did not make the decision of returning to Lu lightly. When he was working as a government official in the State of Chen, he was already over sixty years old and he thought to himself, “It is time to return home. The youths in my country need to be educated and cultivated.” Shortly after that Confucius travelled northward and returned to the State of Wei. Since Lu and Wei were neighboring states and there were frequent contacts between the two states, Confucius’ students had achieved high-ranking positions in both states. Many of his students who specialized in ethics also gradually accumulated achievements as they gained life experience and became cultivated in the traditions of rites and music. Seeing how his former young students had matured and reached middle age with success in their careers, Confucius felt ever more strongly the fleeting passage of time and the perpetual cycle of life. Although he had always been concerned with maintaining peace and order in the world, he now became increasingly concerned with the future.
Therefore, after returning to Lu, Confucius did not seek another government position. In his old age, Confucius dedicated himself to educating the next generation in the principles of maintaining individual integrity and social order. By the time he was fifteen years old, Confucius had committed himself to a path of learning, and as he gained broader knowledge, experiencing the ups and downs of political life and overcoming innumerable challenges, he was able to develop a special kind of wisdom that could be accumulated only from life experiences, the distillation of knowledge, and deep reflection. To share this wisdom with his students, he continued with his teaching and also worked on organizing the important ancient documents of the Zhou Dynasty.
The classic texts of Poetry, History, Rites, Music, Changes, and the Spring and Autumn Annals were considered a cultural treasure that had been passed down from the beginnings of the Zhou Dynasty. Confucius had read and studied them, using them for teaching, but the texts that comprised these classics had appeared and been modified gradually through the Zhou Dynasty and had not been systematically organized. Confucius began to arrange and reorder the chapters and contents of these bodies of literature. It is impossible to determine the degree to which Confucius altered these materials, and scholars over the centuries have continued to debate and raise speculations on the subject. However, we can be certain that Confucius did not merely reorganize the texts in a mechanical manner, but rather, added his own thoughts and ideas to these ancient texts. With Confucius’ efforts, these ancient texts were established as the classical canon of Chinese culture, preserving valuable knowledge and wisdom that Confucius wished to convey to successive generations.
After Confucius had returned and settled down in the states of Wei and Lu to devote himself to teaching, more and more young students came to him and expressed their enthusiasm for studying with him. Confucius took them under his wing and taught them with patience and strict guidance, while he continued to show concern for his former students who were now teaching or working away from home. From the way Confucius treated his students, whether in reprimands or in praise, it can be seen that he truly placed his ideals and hopes on them. He treated them as if they were his own children, loving and caring for them as a father would.
But unfortunate events soon followed one after another. Four years after Confucius had returned to Lu, his most outstanding disciple, Yan Hui, passed away. In the winter of the following year, Zhong You, who had established a successful career as a government minister, was killed in a battle while trying to protect his superior. Both these students had studied with Confucius for a long time and were very close to their teacher; one had excelled at politics while the other was known for his achievements in ethics, and both had bright prospects . Confucius was devastated after hearing the news of their death. In the summer of 479 BC, a year after Zhong You was killed, Confucius passed away at the age of 73 and was buried near Sishui in the State of Lu.
Confucius’ students were greatly saddened by his death and they now gathered together for his funeral. At the time, there were no customs for how students should dress in traditional mourning garments at their teacher’s funeral. When Yan Hui and Zhong You passed away, even though Confucius did not wear mourning robes, he remained in mourning for his students in the way that a parent would remain in mourning for a child’s death. Another of Confucius’ most important students, Duan-mu Ci proposed that all the students remain in mourning for Confucius for three years, as was customary at that time for a parent’s death. But to avoid conflict with the traditional rites, they did not adopt the mourning garment since they were not mourning for their blood parents, but they did remain in mourning for three years. By the end of the twenty-fifth month, when the mourning period ended, they wept and bid each other farewell. Duan-mu Ci was left alone and stayed for another three years before leaving the site of his master’s grave. When the other students dispersed, they went to different places and continued to study, instruct and develop what they had learned from Confucius. Confucius’ thoughts and concepts were thus gradually disseminated to various corners of the Chinese world and became one of the leading schools of thought during the pre-Qin era.
After Confucius’ death, the history of China went through dramatic changes: the conflicts between feudal lords during the Warring States Period, the government reformation during the Qin Dynasty, and the turmoil at the beginning of the Han Dynasty. When Sima Qian, the renowned historian of the Han Dynasty, visited the territory that used to be part of the State of Lu, various ceremonial musical instruments and clothing were still on display in the Temple of Confucius, while many Confucian scholars still gathered periodically at the master’s former home to study rites and music. This led Sima Qian to write in the Records of the Grand Historian, “Around the world, there are many kings and noble gentlemen who lived in glory and fame during their lifetime, but were soon buried under the ashes of history after their death. Even though Confucius was not born in a family of wealth or nobility, his legacy was passed down from generation to generation and today he is still considered a master for scholars over the world. He deserves to be considered a great sage of the highest order.”
Review by Su-Fen Lin and Timothy Baker Jr.