A sage for his own time and beyond
Confucius (551-479 BC), lived in the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC). At a time when Plato and Aristotle were spreading philosophies on ethics in the Western world, Confucius was having a major impact on the social, political and philosophical structure of China.
Amid the chaos of the 6th century BC in China, with feudal states fighting endlessly and rulers frequently assassinated, Confucius exemplified benevolence and integrity. Through his teachings, he became the most famous philosopher in China and shaped the soul of the people, although he himself never commanded an army or ruled a state.
Confucius was born into an aristocratic family in 551 BC in the state of Lu, in what is now Shandong province. His father died when he was 3 years old, and Confucius and his mother moved away and lived in poverty. He developed a lifelong sympathy for the suffering of common people.
At age 19, Confucius married and entered government service for the state of Lu. He kept accounts at a granary. Through study and reflection, he came to believe that human character is formed through the family and by education in proper behavior, literature and history. By age 30, Confucius had begun acquiring disciples who were drawn to his teachings on personal behavior and morality.
He became an adviser of the ruler of Lu and held many posts of increasing responsibility, eventually rising to the rank of minister. He also began to put his philosophy into practice.
Confucius was annoyed by the ruler, who was distracted by a troupe of female musicians offered to him by his rival, the head of Qi state. He resigned at the age of 54 and spent the next few years traveling throughout China with a band of faithful followers. He sought an ethical ruler he could serve.
During his travels, Confucius nearly died of starvation, and his life was frequently threatened. But he wasn't embittered. He taught his students that a virtuous person could always find joy in learning.
Failing to find the ruler he sought, Confucius returned to Lu and gained influence as a teacher and philosopher. He died in 479 BC in his early 70s. For his disciples, he was the living embodiment of a sage who leads others to virtue. They collected many of his sayings and quotations and compiled them into a book which came to be known in English as the Analects.
His sayings - for example, "How happy we are to meet friends from afar", "Harmony should be cherished" and "Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire" - remain sage advice after more than 2,500 years.
His concepts were developed further by others and became a crucial part of Chinese traditional culture.