Reading Analects with 'China In Ink': One Confucius at a time

His figure is towering but not imposing. His face is calm but eyes piercing. He seems to be smiling, yet his mouth barely curves. His hands cross in front of his chest, not outreaching, nor inviting.

This is probably the most popular visual rendering of Confucius today (see the photo). Statues and paintings of the Chinese sage may vary in detail, but the bearing always radiates a becoming modesty.

Since no painting or sculpture of the ancient Chinese master survives two millennia to illustrate his face, generations of Chinese craftsmen have tried to re-imagine the giant thinker's image from Confucianism canons – the classics as well as later annotations of them – conforming the way he looks to the way he teaches.

But historic records may paint Confucius in a more complicated light. Some of the earliest documents depict him as an ambitious politician at his prime, confronting the chaotic world of the Spring and Autumn Period (around 770–481 BCE) by pushing for his ideal among the ruling class. He retired into writing and teaching after mainstream politics shut him out – the popular Confucius images we see today are probably associated with this stage of his life. Many of his educated contemporaries would choose a similar career path. What distinguishes Confucius from them is his unwavering belief in humanitarian principles that were revolutionary at a time when might spoke the loudest.

Historic Confucius appears to be a colorful figure as well. He aspired to high intellectual and ethical standards but stayed true to himself when he struggled. For example, the master cautioned his disciples against giving in to sensations such as ecstasy and sorrow. But he fell to pieces when his most talented disciple and likely successor died as a young man. The tearful master shouted in devastation that Heaven had abandoned him. (Analects, 11-9, 11-10)

To modern readers, Confucius, like all historical figures of ancient age whose influence lasts to this day, is a combination of political, social and cultural constructions over time. Understanding his thinking starts with contextualizing the original texts. This can be a detective work both challenging and fun, given how few documents we have from around his lifetime and how rich later Confucianism annotations are.

"Take one Confucius at a time," advises Gu Jiegang, a renowned 20th-century Chinese historian. To follow his advice, we intend the following video series to be a starting point of a long learning journey for global readers who are interested in the founding figure of Chinese civilization. The series focuses on the basics of Confucius’s life and career, as can be pieced together from tested sources close to his time. Chief among them is the Analects of Confucius, a book that documents the master’s life and teachings. At least two generations of Confucius's followers were the recorders and editors. The compiling work continued for over a hundred years following the master's death in 479 BCE, but the finalized edition closer to what we see today probably didn't emerge until the first century BCE.

The first episode introduces the historical background against which Confucius’s life story unfolds. It was an era that saw drastic and often unnervingly violent changes. What kind of man is Confucius is featured in the second chapter of the series. The master’s own words on the matter, as they are recorded in the Analects, may slightly differ from what the common image of him suggests today. The third video touches upon the Confucianist idea of "gentleman," which in later dynasties of the Middle Kingdom had been gradually elevated to a standard moral model for emperors, bureaucrats and the intelligentsia. Confucius's ideal on governance is probably one of the most difficult questions for Confucianist thinkers to take on. How come his political endeavor was so utterly frustrated during his lifetime yet the underlying philosophy of it became so influential later? Why Confucius’s thinking is still relevant 2,500 years later is discussed here.

We also put his teachings to the test on 21st century issues as thorny as Artificial Intelligence, environment protection and fake news. The results are interesting as well as thought-provoking.

"China In Ink" is a CGTN project that brings the tremendous world of classic Chinese literature to the fingertips of global audiences. Programs of the project can be found in all media forms on CGTN's website as well as major global social networks.

Search Trends