Fisherman in a Boat

Chinese History & Culture

Confucius: A Life of Thought and Politics

Review of Confucius: A Life of Thought and Politics, by Annping Chin. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. 268 pages. ISBN 978-0-300-15118-3.

T
hough rejected by leading intellectuals during and after the May Fourth Movement, and apparently buried beyond retrieval in the Cultural Revolution, Confucius has been making a comeback. We are familiar with the Confucius Institutes which have become a key part of Beijing’s “soft power.” More recently, a front-page picture of prominent professors garbed in Ming dynasty attire and replicating ancient ceremonies of homage (worship?) to Confucius reminds us that the Sage has by no means been banished from his ancestral home.

Annping Chin’s graceful biography of Confucius helps explain why Confucius still commands such respect and even reverence.

“Confucius concentrated on living life as well as he knew how. . . It was learning. . . and a desire to perfect himself, together with an awareness that this life was the only occasion he had to fulfill his wish and promise, that distinguished him.”(1) These opening words set the tone for a book which tries to present to us Confucius the real man, as distinct from the legend.

After an Introduction that describes the period in which Confucius lived, Chin begins her narrative with Confucius’ sudden departure from the state of Lu and his position as minister of crime. By then, his parents had been dead for decades; his son was thirty-five and his daughter not much younger; and his marriage had ended. Forced by necessity to learn several trades, he had become “skilled in many things.” He was tall, an industrious worker, and a ready learner. When he left the duchy of Lu, he had already gathered around himself a few disciples who believed he could teach them how to become men of influence.

In his wanderings over the next few years, Confucius sought a ruler who would value his advice as a counselor, for that is what he saw himself to be. His great model was the ancient Duke of Zhou, who advised kings but did not aspire to power. Chin’s intimate knowledge of history sets Confucius within the nearly anarchic period when wise counselors were as needed as rulers noble enough to value such men were rare. Along the way, she elucidates many sayings and stories in the Analects which require such knowledge to understand them, as well as putting him into his own context.

“Confucius was not on his own” during his fourteen years of self-imposed exile. “A handful of students and admirers followed him . . . Without his companions, it would seem, he would not have been as keen and lucid as he was to become in his later years. Without them, he could have been dead on the road, long before his work was coming to completion.” Chin introduces us to students and friends – Fan Li, Zigong, Zaiwo, Yan Hui, Zilu, Zhonggong – men who “loved learning as much as he did,” and with whom he could engage in the sort of conversations he loved, probing, parrying, teaching. These disciples would later instruct others, who would in turn record Confucius’ conversations and wanderings in the Analects. One thinks of Socrates and Jesus and their disciples.


The author says that she relied mainly on the Analects, the collection of sayings and anecdotes compiled about one hundred years after his death, as well as the Zuo commentary (Zuo zhuan), along with some newly discovered manuscripts that refer to Confucius. She admits that gaps remain in the records, which themselves are not altogether “veritable,” but says that she does not seek to fill in the gaps.

On the other hand, her wide reading of classical literature shows up on almost every page, as she does, in fact, “fill in the gaps” in the known facts about Confucius himself with extensive material from Chinese history and literature, especially Mencius and Zhuangzi, without pretending that she has thereby recovered a full portrait of the “real” Confucius.

Chin traces the wanderings of Confucius from state to state, always seeking a ruler who would value his counsel and always disappointed. Was it all for nothing? A border warden perceived that this peripatetic life was actually Confucius’ great contribution, for as he visited various locations in the empire, “Heaven” was using him “as a wooden tongue for a bronze bell,” to “arouse people” to seek wisdom, justice, and humanity. In short, he was destined to be a teacher, not a counselor.

As a few choice students followed him, or remained with him when he settled for a while, Confucius “tried to inspire his young companions to become stronger, quicker, and more reflective than they had been when they started.” Meanwhile, he never tired of learning new things himself, so that one remarked, “From whom does Confucius not learn?” (144) Famously, he saw himself as “a transmitter, not an innovator,” but he also passed on “knowledge he had distilled by way of thought.” (149)

Chin does not try to present an exhaustive treatment of all that Confucius taught, but she does capture the essentials: Prudence and morality; children and parents; virtue and vice; music and rites; life and – no, not death. He would not speculate on things beyond his ken, such as spirits, ghosts, and the afterlife. He “had knowledge but not an overarching theory with ready answers.” He did not believe “that anything could be ‘beyond doubt’ or any rule should be ‘immutable,’ and he refused to force his opinion on anyone or put himself above anyone.” (160) Given the self-contradictory history of Western philosophy, with its endless speculation, Confucius’ reticence seems very sensible, even wise.

On the other hand, certain convictions seemed self-evident to him, including the inherent goodness of human nature. Chin tries to show, however, that Confucius saw the difficulty of acting according to one’s ethical standards, and realized that we all live in the tension between the Ought and the Is, even in ourselves.

A final chapter on Confucius “Defenders” briefly surveys the ways in which he was interpreted by Mencius and Xunzi, proponents of the two leading schools that competed for the master’s legacy, showing why Mencius won out as the “orthodox” successor to Confucius and the founder of the imperial “Confucian” tradition.

We might ask, “What has this man to do with us?” Beginning with the obvious, we note the attempts to re-instate some version of “Confucianism” as a replacement for what has become the embarrassing bankruptcy of Communism around the world, including China. Perhaps Confucius can bestow some legitimacy upon a regime that can otherwise claim nothing but economic growth and rising commercial, military, and political influence.

More than that, however, do we not still see among Chinese people everywhere some of the Sage’s pragmatism, toleration, worldly sagacity, and lack of dogmatism about ultimate matters? What about the obsession with education, even if its aims and methods have veered sharply from Confucius’ pattern? Foreigners are still struck by the respect for authority, the concern for ceremony and symbols, and indirect communication that Confucius would recognize and affirm. Readers familiar with China can add to this short list. How could we understand the Chinese without knowing something about their greatest teacher?

Annping Chin’s biography of Confucius evokes her subject in other ways as well. Like him, it is elegant, subtle, generous , and very learned, though without ostentation.