This chapter has been published in the book CONFUCIUS AND SOCRATES Teaching Wisdom. For ordering information, please click here.
Over the several decades in which Confucius taught it is
very difficult to estimate how many students he had. Unlike
the Buddha and Jesus, there is no indication that he ever
spoke to large groups of people. In The Analects there
are the names of about twenty men who might have been regular
students or disciples. The character of all these discussions
is of personal conversations among a few individuals. None of
Confucius' personal students became famous philosophers
or religious leaders, though Confucianism was eventually to
become a dominant philosophy and even a religion. However,
some of the disciples did write down the conversations they remembered,
preserving and passing on the teachings of their master.
The authorship of The Analects is unknown, and the
later Confucian texts of Higher Education (The Great Learning)
and The Center of Harmony (The Doctrine of the Mean), although
attributed to Confucius' grandson Zisi, may have been written
a couple of centuries later. Mencius, who became the greatest
Confucian philosopher next to Confucius himself, was a
student of Zisi's pupil and was born at least a century
after Confucius' death. Before we attempt to evaluate the
overall influence of Confucius, let us first examine his
What were these disciples like? How did they see themselves? What did Confucius think of them? We remember how Confucius did not consider himself a sage or even good, but he did claim that he was untiring in his effort to teach others. To this, one student replied, "The trouble is that we disciples cannot learn!"1 Confucius also felt that his students had their limitations and therefore could benefit from his care. Once during his travels in Chen he said, "Let us go back; let us go back! The little ones at home are headstrong and careless. They are perfecting themselves in all the showy insignia of culture without any idea how to use them."2 Yet it appears from The Analects that the disciples were aware of the mission of Confucius and probably sensed the part they could play in improving the world. An incident is recorded about the border guard at Yi who asked to see Confucius because he was always allowed to see a truly better person whenever one passed by. After talking with Confucius he said to the disciples, "Sirs, why are you disheartened by your master's loss of office? The Way has not prevailed in the world for a long time. Heaven is going to use your master as a bell with a wooden tongue."3 Since Confucius was not accepted by the world, it was up to the disciples to set good examples in their conduct and spread the teachings.
The favorite student of Confucius appears to have been Yen Hui, for he often singled him out as excelling in learning and virtue. Confucius said of him,
Incomparable indeed was Hui!
A handful of rice to eat, a gourdful of water to drink,
living in a mean street-
others would have found it unendurably depressing,
but to Hui's cheerfulness it made no difference at all.
Incomparable indeed was Hui!4
Hui was humble and usually quiet, but Confucius felt that he far surpassed all the others in that most important quality of goodness. "About Hui, for three months there would be nothing in his mind contrary to goodness. The others could attain to this for a day or a month at the most."5 Actually Yen Hui was so quiet and obedient that some must have thought he was stupid. However, Confucius defended him from this charge, valuing good deeds more than clever words, saying,
I can talk to Yen Hui a whole day
without his ever differing from me.
One would think he was stupid.
But if I inquire into his private conduct
when he is not with me,
I find that it fully demonstrates
what I have taught him.
No, Hui is by no means stupid.6
Yen Hui could express himself though, as in this passage where he marveled at the comprehensiveness and yet elusiveness of Confucius' teachings.
Yen Hui said with a deep sigh,
"The more I strain my gaze up towards them,
the higher they soar.
The deeper I bore down into them,
the more solid they become.
I see them in front, but suddenly they are behind.
Step by step the master skillfully leads me on.
He has broadened me with culture
and taught me the restraints of propriety.
Even when I want to stop, I cannot.
Just when I feel I have exerted all my ability,
something seems to rise up, standing out sharp and clear.
Even though I long to pursue it,
I can find no way of getting to it at all."7
This statement indicates that Hui could have been a very subtle and earnest student. Apparently Confucius placed great faith in his development, but unfortunately the master was to lose him at a young age. "It was Hui whom I could count on always to listen attentively to anything I said.... Alas, I saw him go forward, but had no chance to see where this progress would have led him in the end."8 The untimely death of the disciple whom Confucius had placed above all the rest was a severe psychological blow to the master. Confucius expressed his regret to two noteworthy political leaders. When Duke Ai asked which of the disciples loved learning, he replied,
There was Yen Hui; he really loved to learn.
He never vented his anger upon the innocent
nor let others suffer for his faults.
Unfortunately the span of life allotted to him
by Heaven was short, and he died.
Now there are none, or at any rate
I have heard of none who are fond of learning.9
Confucius expressed the same idea to Kan-zi of the Ji
family, "There was Yen Hui. He was fond of learning,
but unfortunately his allotted span was a short one, and
he died. Now there is none."10
Confucius never seemed to place a strong faith in any disciple after Yen Hui died. Even such a prominent disciple as Zigong did not consider himself in the same class with Yen Hui, as the following conversation shows:
Confucius said to Zigong,
"Which do you yourself think is better, you or Hui?"
Zigong answered, "I dare not compare myself with Hui.
For Hui has but to hear one part in ten,
in order to understand the whole ten.
Whereas if I hear one part, I understand no more than two parts."
Confucius said, "Not equal to him-you and I are not equal to him!"11
Of course Confucius and Zigong were expressing themselves with humility here. Ziqin, another disciple, once challenged this modesty of Zigong, saying to him, "This is an affectation of modesty. Zhong-ni (Confucius) is in no way your superior." Zigong reprimanded the man and expressed his belief that Confucius could never be surpassed.
You should be more careful about what you say.
A better person, though for a single word
may be deemed wise,
for a single word one may be deemed a fool.
It would be as hard to equal our master
as to climb up on a ladder to the sky.
Had our master ever been put in control
of a state or of a great family,
it would have been as is described in the words;
'He raised them, and they stood;
he led them, and they went.
He steadied them with happiness, and they came to him.
He stimulated them, and they moved harmoniously.
His life was glorious, his death lamented.'
How can such a one ever be equalled?12
Confucius did think enough of some of his disciples to
recommend them for public office. When Ji Kang-zi, who
became head of the administration of Lu in 492 BC, asked
(perhaps at a time before that) whether Zilu, Zigong, and
Ran Qiu were fit to be employed as officers in the government,
Confucius said that each of them was capable of holding
office.13 However, something which Zilu did must have led
Confucius to throw him out of his house so that the other
disciples no longer respected him. Confucius indicated
his deficiency this way: "The truth about Yu is that
he has got as far as the guest-hall, but has not yet entered
the inner rooms."14 In other words, he understood the
formal doctrines but not the inner teachings. Zilu excelled
in courage and daring but was lacking in the more important
qualities of goodness and wisdom. He finally died a heroic
and violent death (predicted by Confucius15) as he loyally
refused to abandon the Kong family in Wei, saying, "I
have eaten their pay, and will not flee from their misfortunes."
Attempting to save his prince, he was stabbed to death.16
Confucius also disowned Ran Qiu as a follower of his when Qiu collected too many taxes for the wealthy Ji family, saying, "My little ones, you may beat the drum and set upon him. I give you leave."17 Later he may have been allowed back into the circle of disciples; meanwhile he achieved great success in his service of the Ji family for many years.18
Zigong, who was noted for his eloquence, became a successful diplomat "as an aide to the Lu envoy on several missions to other states."19 Confucius indicated that Zigong (Si) became a wealthy man in contrast to Yen Hui who remained poor. "Hui comes very near to it. He is often empty. Si was discontented with his lot and has taken steps to enrich himself. Yet his judgments are often correct."20 Confucius seemed to praise him in spite of his money-making, which he frowned upon. After studying the ancient chronicles, the modern scholar Cho-yun Hsu concluded that Zigong was a noted diplomat "whose international reputation stemmed not from noble blood, for he was a commoner, but from his own competence."21 This is a highly significant change in Chinese culture for which Confucius was in no small way responsible. Zigong was one of those near to Confucius' own age who managed to outlive the master. Mencius wrote that Zigong went back to the religious sanctuary near Confucius' grave, built a house, and mourned for another three years.22 This indicates that Zigong was the most devoted disciple at this time.
Confucius once made the following criticisms of some of his disciples: "Chai is stupid. Shen is dull-witted. Shi is too formal. Yu is coarse."23 Shen is the familiar name of Zeng-zi, who is often quoted in The Analects and thus must have been influential after Confucius' death. However, the remark by Confucius calling him "dull-witted" indicates that he probably did not have control over the publication of The Analects. Mencius related how he ran away when his house was going to be attacked, ordering his steward not to allow any people to stay in his house because they might harm the plants and trees.24 Apparently Zeng-zi was not the humanist which Confucius was! Among his many quotes in The Analects he often emphasized the virtue of filial piety, more than Confucius ever did.25 He may have been one reason why this very conservative virtue came to be so important in Confucianism, as the Classic of Filial Piety was often attributed to him.26
Immediately after his discussion of the disciples' mourning for Confucius, Mencius mentioned an incident when the disciples "Zixia, Zizhang, and Ziyu thinking that Yu Ro resembled a sage, wished to render to him the same observances which they had rendered to Confucius. They tried to force the disciple Zeng to join with them, but he said, 'This may not be done.'"27 Yu like Zeng and Confucius was referred to as a master in The Analects, and he was quoted four times in the first chapter. The Tso Chuan chronicle mentions him under the year 487 as a foot-soldier.28 Thus his education would have been his only claim to fame, since he obviously had no social status.
Confucius cataloged the abilities of some of his major disciples this way:
Those who worked by virtue were
Yen Hui, Min Ziqian, Ran Geng, and Ran Yong.
Those who spoke well were Zai Yu and Zigong.
Those who surpassed in handling public business
were Ran Qiu and Zilu;
in culture and learning, Ziyu and Zixia.29
Ziyu is the one we found teaching music in Wu when Confucius criticized him jokingly. When Ziyu explained the advantages of educating both better people and common people, Confucius retracted the criticism.30 This could indicate that Ziyu had a regular school similar to that of Confucius, which was very unusual in those times. In another passage Ziyu criticized Zixia's method of educating, implying a possible competition between their schools.
Ziyu said, "Zixia's disciples and scholars,
so long as it is only a matter of sprinkling and sweeping the ground,
answering summonses and replying to questions,
coming forward and retiring, are all right.
But these are minor matters.
Set them to anything important,
and they would be quite at a loss."
Zixia, hearing of this, said, "Alas,
Yen Yu is wholly mistaken.
Of the Way of the better person it is said:
If it is transmitted to one before one is ripe
By the time one is ripe, one will weary of it.
Disciples may indeed be compared to plants and trees.
They have to be separately treated according to their kinds.
In the Way of the better person there can be no bluff.
It is only the Divine Sage who embraces in oneself
both the first step and the last."31
In another quotation in The Analects, Zixia gave his
description of an "educated person."32
Apparently there was no single recognized leader after the death of Confucius, but rather several prominent disciples who gathered followings of students who wished to pursue the teachings brought forward by Confucius. Eventually someone must have gathered together from the oral traditions the various conversations which are included in The Analects. Later other books on such subjects as education, the mean, propriety, music, filial piety, etc. were written to enlarge and elaborate the Confucian tradition which continued to grow and flourish. Confucius, more than any other person we know of, gave the impetus and basic philosophy for men of any class to better themselves through learning. Soon Mo-zi was to develop his own philosophy and gather disciples around him, and of course many teachers followed the philosophy of Confucius. Xu quoted from a document written in the third century BC which named six men who improved their lives notably through education.
Zizhang was from a humble family of Lu;
Yen Zhuozhu was a robber in Liangfu.
Both studied with Confucius.
Duangan Mu was a market broker in Jin;
he studied with Zixia.
Gao He and Xian-zi Shi were both ruffians in Qi
and both were objects of reproach to their neighbors.
They studied with Mo-zi.
So Lu Sheh, a man of the east, was a great dissembler.
He studied with Qin Hua Li.
All of these six should have been
the victims of punishment and humiliation,
but they escaped these hardships
and even became dignitaries who enjoyed good reputations,
lived out their years, and were respected by rulers,
all because they changed their lives through education.33
It is impossible to measure the overall influence of a
man who developed a philosophy which became one of the major
religions of the world, touching the fundamental beliefs and
principles of a hundred generations of people. Because his
conversations were written down, the spirit of Confucius'
teachings was passed along from father to child and from
teacher to student. The impact of these ideals is such an
intangible process that it is very difficult to evaluate how
much they influenced people's lives. Yet their endurance
through history and their dominance in Chinese culture for
two dozen centuries gives us an indication of how much they
were valued and used.
What were the major innovations which Confucius introduced to Chinese culture? Frederick Mote in his Intellectual Foundations of China summarized what we have thus far described in detail under three chief points. First, Confucius created the role of the professional teacher for adults. Second, he developed not only the content of education but also its methods and ideals. Third, he welcomed students from any social background, thus opening the way for social mobility through education in China.34
Although he may not have magically made every person he contacted immediately wise, there is evidence that in some way his teaching did help some of his students to be more successful in life and to strive for higher ideals of goodness. Not only that, but he set forth guidelines and demonstrated by his own actions and teaching style, what kind of methods might be employed in pursuing wisdom through education. Now that we have presented in as much detail as possible what he did, we must analyze and synthesize these in order to discover the methods we could use today for the learning of wisdom. However, our purpose is to do this by comparing Confucius as an educator to Socrates. Therefore we must next turn to a description of Socrates before we begin our comparative analysis.
1. Analects 7:33.
2. An. 5:21.
3. An. 3:24.
4. An. 6:9.
5. An. 6:5.
6. An. 2:9.
7. An. 9:10.
8. An. 9:19-20.
9. An. 6:2.
10. An. 11:6.
11. An. 5:8.
12. An. 19:25.
13. An. 6:6.
14. An. 11:14.
15. An. 11:12.
16. Creel, Confucius: The Man & the Myth, p. 74.
17. An. 11:16.
18. Creel, Confucius, p. 75.
19. Hsu, Ancient China in Transition, p. 36.
20. An. 11:18.
21. Hsu, Ancient China in Transition, p. 101.
22. Mencius 3A, 4:13.
23. An. 11:17.
24. Mencius 4B, 31:1.
25. An. 19:17-18.
26. Creel, Confucius, p. 82.
27. Mencius 3A, 4:13.
28. Waley, The Analects of Confucius, p. 20.
29. An. 11:2.
30. An. 17:4.
31. An 19:12.
32. An. 1:7.
33. Hsu, Ancient China in Transition, p. 105.
34. Mote, Intellectual Foundations of China, p. 37-39.
This chapter has been published in the book CONFUCIUS AND SOCRATES Teaching Wisdom. For ordering information, please click here.
Confucius, Mencius and Xun-zi