CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
Nos. 30/31, June/September 2012


Confucius as I Know Him | China Heritage Quarterly

Confucius as I Know Him

Lin Yutang 林語堂

The following 'Little Critic' essay was originally presented as a speech at the Winter Institute of the foreign YMCA, Shanghai on 25 November 1930, and it was published in The China Critic, IV:1 (1 January 1931): 5-9. It was collected in T'ang Leang-li's China's Own Critics. Some minor stylistic changes have been made to the text in accord with in-house style and section headings added.—The Editor

The Human Being

You will all readily agree with me when I tell you that I do not know Confucius personally. And yet I feel bound to make to you, without any serious pretensions, the honest confession that I have tried to know him perhaps as well as any one ever does in the world. This, you will please understand, is not saying much at all. Certainly, the Chinese scholars have never known him, since the end of the second century B.C., when Confucianism was turned into a state religion, and Confucius, the living, erring, struggling, inconsistent mortal, was turned into a sage of immaculate character and divine wisdom. People have worshipped him, emperors have showered official attributes upon him, and writers have racked their brains and tortured their heads in order to explain away some of the scandals created by Confucius and recorded in the Confucian classics and the historical masterpiece, the Shi-ki of Ss-ma Chien [Sima Qian's Shiji 司馬遷史記—Ed.]. But no one has tried to know him and to understand him from his human side. When I see those ardent defendants of Confucius trying to invent excuses for his scandals or to disprove them against the evidence of the Confucian Analects itself, I always picture to myself a forty-year-old clerk trying to jump over high hurdles. It happens, however, the scandals are so many and the hurdles are so high that these Confucian clerks never had a chance.

For the one thing that strikes us when we begin to study Confucius as a man is the extremely human side of his character. Confucius was so great a man that he was above any petty correctness or mere slavish adherence to principles. Mencius admitted that Confucius never adhered to any principles, and argues that this was his true greatness. Consequently, we find Confucius doing many things that shocked both decency and respectability. The biographical sketch of Confucius in the Shi-ki, for instance, literally bristles with them. In that chapter alone, I can point to at least a dozen things which Confucius did and which a gentleman would never have done. The evidence is so overwhelmingly on the other side that it is his intense humanity, rather than his saintliness, that impresses upon us. And no more damning evidence can be found against Confucius than what is recorded in the Confucian Analects itself. After all, why should we try to explain away his scandals? A better use of this material is to take the scandals as they are in the classics, and instead of trying to invent excuses for them, make them throw an intimate light on the human side of his character. No foreign Sinologist, so far as I know, has done this, because the foreign Sinologists generally behave more disgracefully in this respect than the Chinese scholars. They are so enraptured with their own pains in studying the archaic texts that they even conscientiously lament the romanization of Chinese. The only fair and really unbiased sane critic of Confucius I have been able to find is the author of Audacious Angels of China.

Haughty, Ambitious, Worldly, Mendacious and Ill-mannered

Because of the serious implications of our task, I shall try to be methodically correct. I shall try to give you, whenever possible, the authentic texts and the exact quotations, and when the text is of doubtful origin, I shall plainly say so. But I shall not need doubtful texts. I shall try to limit myself to the Analects, and the Shi-ki. I shall follow Sainte-Beuve's method, and try to re-establish a picture of the man and his genius from his personal conduct, his family relationships and his enemies. Saint-Beuve believes that we can learn as much from the character of one's enemies as from that of his friends and personal circles. A stupid man will not be charged of double-crossing a friend even by the worst of his enemies, and an opportunist will not be accused of stubbornness. It happens that we have rather rich materials in this field. For two centuries after his death, there was hardly a man outside the Confucianist camp who had a good word to say for Confucius. The charges against Confucius were really astonishing. They included haughtiness, personal ambition, worldliness, mendacity and bad manners.

Saint-Beuve believes that a man's genius can be characterized by one single formula, and that, after a prolonged and intimate study of the man and his works, the formula will present itself as indubitably the correct one. I believe that I have found such a formula for Confucius. Confucius was the master Confucianist. He was so not only in precepts but also in his conduct. A Confucianist is a man who is gifted with pretty good intelligence, has a real taste for learning, but because of the parasitic nature of his class, is forced to be intensely practical. Every Confucianist is a half-scholar and half-politician. The Confucianists were not only a school of peripatetic scholars, but they were rather a group of peripatetic politicians. The Confucian scholar is therefore very different from your Eastern scholar of the professional type, a man who, for instance, wears a straw hat all round the year, or stuffs his pockets with fossils or botanical specimens, or a man who habitually forgets his appointments. A Confucianist scholar never forgets his appointments; he changes his hats with the four seasons of the year and he is punctiliously correct in his dress. He is an intensely practical man, a man gifted with dogged good sense. Of these half-scholars and half-politicians, Confucius was the greatest. The practical sense of Confucius was carried so far as to shock some of his own followers. It will certainly shock some of us.

Meat Offerings and Beans

Let us begin with some examples of his practical sense in the Confucian Analects. Even if not everything recorded therein was true, it was at least what Confucius' own disciples said of him. The Third Chapter tells us that once Ju Pei went to call on Confucius. Confucius disliked the fellow and told him that he was ill, which is the oriental equivalent of your 'not at home'. A Western gentleman would stop there. But Confucius went one better. When Ju Pei was just outside the door, he purposely took a mandolin, and not only played on it but also sand in order to make the visitor realize that he was in the house after all. When we read the empty praise by his disciples that Confucius was always 'polite and well-poised' we must, therefore, take it with a grain of salt.

Another time Yang Ho presented Confucius with a leg of pork. Now Yang was a bad man, but he was the most powerful man in the court. When Confucius returned home and found the leg of pork, and learned it was from Yang, he was annoyed. He didn't like the man and yet he was afraid to offend him. What you or I would do in a case like that when you don't like the man would be either to send the pork back or go and say thanks to him. But Confucius was a better diplomat than you or I. He sent a servant to find out when he would not be at home, then he went to call on him at the ascertained hour and left his card. You see he gave no offence to anybody and no inconvenience to himself. This incident is recorded both in chapter three of the Analects and in Mencius. Would Thomas Edison or Cardinal Newman ever think of such a stunt?

The there was the incident of his meeting the Queen of Wei. The Queen of Wei was a woman of notoriously loose morals, but she was more powerful than the king himself, being the real ruler of the kingdom. The Queen had ousted the crown prince and made her own son the heir-apparent to the throne, and had done many other things that Confucian principles could not countenance. Nevertheless, because Confucius had a few old friends and good disciples in Wei, he decided to try his luck as an official in that country. He therefore accepted the invitation of the Queen and went to see the Queen instead of the king. He did what every politician would do. But you know the Confucian traditional ideas of relationship between men and women, not to speak of women with a fame for loose morals. His oldest disciple Ts-lu, the Confucian St Peter, therefore chided him for this incorrect conduct. Confucius did not reply by arguments, but by a terrible oath. He swore that if his motive had been improper, might Heaven strike him. The oath was so energetically made that it was repeated twice, as it is now recorded in the Analects and the Shi-ki. According to the Shi-ki, the Queen saw him and took him for a ride through the streets. The King and Queen were sitting together and parading the streets in a highly un-Confucian fashion, with her favorite eunuch sitting as the first driver, and Confucius as the second driver. Confucius had good sense enough to observe that the street people were looking at the beautiful young queen rather than at himself. It was after this ride that he made the now famous remark that 'people worship beauty more than they worship virtue'. And he promptly left the country after that public insult to wander on in search of other worthy rulers. And yet in spite of that insult, he returned to Wei twice in three years. In the last visit, the King of Wei asked him about military advice, and Confucius replied that he knew nothing about military matters, but know a lot about 'meat offerings and beans'. If I had been the King of Wei, I would have replied to him: 'Confound your meat offerings and beans. All I want is immediate military advice. If you cannot give me that, be so good as to leave my country.' But the King of Wei, being a polished gentleman, did not express his sentiments so directly, although he felt them in his heart. I know that he felt that way, because, according to Shi-ki, when Confucius started to lecture on the meat offerings and the beans next day, the King's head was turned to the skies. He was observing the beautiful flight of a company of cranes sailing through the clouds, and was not at all listening to Confucius. So Confucius left Wei for the third and last time.

Enough has been said to illustrate the exact nature of the much-praised 'practical sense' of Confucius. It was this practical sense that constantly made the Confucian St Peter's blood boil. I will just illustrate this by two more typical examples. You all know that the Confucian tenets are tenets inculcating order and loyalty to the King and the Emperor. Yet twice Confucius was called by some contemptible rebels defying their kings, and occupying no more than a small mud city; twice he was going to accept the invitation of the rebels; and twice our Confucian St Peter had to cajole and persuade him to desist. One was the rebellion of Kung-shan Pu-niu, occupying the small city of Pi, and the other was a rebellion of Pi-yi, occupying the small city of Chung-mou. In both cases, the rebellion was started because the rule (of Lu and of Chao respectively) was trying to subdue them to order. It was all the more ridiculous because when Confucius was in power, he had led a campaign against the very city Pi and planned to tear it down in order to strengthen the King's position against the nobles. Now that a noble in Pi had started a rebellion against the King of Lu and summoned him as his political adviser, he did not hesitate to go on the excuse of having a chance to put his doctrine into practice. You see he was no mere scholar. When Ts-lu, infuriated and scandalized by his readiness to serve a rebel at Chung-mou, again questioned him, Confucius replied with characteristic humour: 'There is a saying: "The truly hard substance does not suffer from grinding, and the truly white material is not in danger of contaminations." Do you suppose I can go without food like a dried up gourd that you hang up on the wall?'

Divorce in the Family

In his personal habits, Confucius was an aristocrat of extremely good taste and fine feeling. In the first place, he came from a royal family of Sung, and his ancestors had been high officials of that country. In the second place, his family manifested all the fashionable aristocratic troubles, like divorce and little moral irregularities, luxuries which the plebeians could not afford. You will soon see that these marital troubles in the Confucian family are very probably the result of an aristocratic temperament and too much refinement in sensual comforts.

Confucius cannot be said to have been over-fortunate in the matter of his ancestors. His grandfather had an inscription on a tripod which represented his family tradition, a tradition which seemed to specialize in kowtowing and curtsying. According to Shi-ki, the tripod inscription reads: 'One command from the king and I bend my head; a second command and I bend my neck; a third command and I bend my body. I run along the wall and people dare not insult me. Here's my porridge, here's my congee; with it I feed my mouth.' That, I am afraid, is not a particularly noble family tradition. And Confucius himself was born out of wedlock, a fact which was universally accepted, and which probably accounted for his striking genius.

According to Li-ki, a series of chapters or books compiled by the Confucian followers, and recognized as one of the Confucian classics, the Confucian family held a record of three divorces in three successive generations: Confucius, his son and his grandson. In the case of Confucius' daughter-in-law, she ran away to marry someone else, but this does not alter the question that his son's marriage was a failure.

Confucius himself, as I have said, was a man of fine feeling and extremely good taste. His love of music was well known: when he heard the old music of Shun, he was spiritually so upset that he forgot the taste of meat for three months. No one who was not sensually something of an epicurean or who was not capable of surrendering to the music with all the force of his emotions, could speak of music in the ecstatic fashion that he did. But he was an epicurean not only in music, in his love of curios, his passion for the antique, but also even in the personal matters of eating and clothing. My suspicion is that it was his over-refinement in the matter of food that caused his divorce.

Extremes of Taste and Emotion

The Analects (Chapter Ten) contains some very explicit statements concerning Confucius' habits in the matter of eating. I think no modern girl would marry a man if she knows beforehand that he is going to be as exacting and fastidious as Confucius. His rice must be extremely white (literally 'his food could not be white enough') and the mincemeat must be extremely fine (literally, 'his mincemeat could not be made fine enough'). Then there is a list of eight or none conditions under which Confucius would not condescend. We read: 'When the food's flavour changed, he would not eat. When the small was not right, he would not eat. When the colour of the food was not right, he would not eat. When the smell was not right, he would not eat. When it was not cooked just right, he would not eat. When a thing was out of season, he would not eat. When the meat was not cut squarely, he would not eat. When a thing was not accompanied by its proper sauce, he would not eat. Wine that was not home-brew and cooked meat purchased from the shops he would not eat.' Think of a German wife trying to serve a German supper without the help of the delicatessen! Is it any wonder then that Confucius' wife, who was married to him at below the age of nineteen, found it hard to submit to this family discipline?

Again, in the matter of clothing, he showed aristocratic refinement. Confucius evidently understood the value of colour schemes and colour harmony. The same chapter in the Analects tells us: 'When he wore a black sheep's fur, he matched it with a black gown; when he wore a young deerskin, he matched it with a white gown; and when he wore fox, he matched it with a brown gown.' He did, however, refrain from using 'scarlet or violet underclothes'. In summer time, he would wear in 'grass-linen' of a coarser fibre underneath, and then another grass-linen gown of fibre texture on top of it. His practical sense was again shown in the fact that he had his right-hand sleeve made shorted than the left-hand sleeve, for convenience during work, and he had a sleeping gown which was longer than his body by half. We are definitely told that in his private house, he habitually wore a think kind of fox-fur, a taste which is not behind our Parisian ladies of fashion.

We have here then a man who had the combination of remarkable intellect, practical good sense, extremely refined taste, keen sensibility and very strong emotions. We frequently read of the depth of sorrow he felt for some deceased friend or disciple. His countenance always changed at the approach of a man in mourning. The Li-ki records a very curious incident, which shows the emotional side of Confucius. Once during his travel, he happened to drop in at the funeral, of an old acquaintance, and, touched by the wailing inside, he also wept bitterly. When he came out, he though he must present some funeral gift. As he was totally unprepared for it, he asked Tze Kung to take part of the accoutrements on the horse, and send it in as his present. Confucius explained to Ts-kung, 'I happened to drop in and cry (in the official fashion). But I was suddenly caught by a strange sorrow and tears fell from my eyes. I hate this weeping without any reason.' Confucius gave a very good characterization of himself. Once Yeh Kung asked Ts-lu about Confucius and Ts-lu did not reply. When Confucius heard this, he said to Ts-lu: 'Why didn't you tell him that I am a man who is sometimes so lost in his work that he forgets eating, and so elated that he forgets all worries, and is not aware of the coming of old age?' There, I think, we have a very good picture of the emotional character of the man.

Reviled by Contemporaries

No picture of Confucius can be complete without a reference to his effect on his contemporaries. The character of Confucius as reflected in the opinions of his contemporaries and those living a century or two after him was an extremely comical one. His peculiar cap and gowns, his self-importance, his persistent and somewhat unscrupulous seeking after official jobs all lent themselves easily to caricature in the hands of his enemies. There was something in this great moralist which irresistible provoked the mirth and laughter of a fine thorough-going skeptic like Chuang-tse. I don not say that all the legends and stories circulated about Confucius were true, and I know Chuang-tse has invented a good number of beautiful lies about the founder of Confucianist philosophy. But I have already referred to the possibility of using an enemy's charges to help reconstruct the picture of a historical person. The very fact that Confucius repelled, instead of attracting, a man like Chuang-tse is of significance. We all know that reported, but very doubtful, meeting between Confucius and Lao-tse, recorded in Shi-ki. We are not concerned with the question whether Lao-tse did actually meet Confucius, but we are interested in the nature of advice Lao-tse was alleged to give Confucius. In the biographical sketch of Lao-tse and the Taoists, in the Shi-ki, there is a description of a dialogue between Confucius and the founder of Taoism. When Confucius went to see the latter and was talking to him about the model emperors Yao and Shun and their ideal character, Lao-tse bluntly answered: 'The very bones of the persons you have mentioned are already rotten. We hear only about their words now. I have heard people say that a good merchant conceals his goods as if he did not have any, and a gentleman conceals his virtue and looks like an ignorant man. Correct your haughtiness and your ambition, your manners and your inordinate desires. That is all I have to say to you.' That was what Lao-tse had to say to Confucius, or at least what some of the generation living immediately after Confucius thought Lao-tse should have said to Confucius. Space does not permit more detailed quotations, but I will mention that the charge made by Yen Ying against Confucius in the presence of the King of Chi was substantially the same. Yen Ying accused the Confucianists of being a class of proud a self-assertive wandering scholars who begged from country to country for food and loans and official jobs, a pack of gabbling fools dressed in special caps and special gowns who advocated expensive funeral ceremonies that might make many families bankrupt; he accused Confucius himself of being pompously dressed, devoted to the study of the details of kowtowing and curtsying and petty ceremonial forms which would take a man's whole life to master.

Perhaps it was very natural that Confucius and his followers should cut such comical figures, with their queer dress, their hawking about their learning in the streets as it were, their going from country to country to seek the favours of some ruler, their self-importance and their pompous red-tape. Forced to depend on the favours of some petty ruler or his wife, they were often unscrupulous in their methods and were often subjected to open insults, in fact a class of capped and gowned wandering hobos. People naturally had a contempt for these people who seem to be concerned about nothing else except discussions on the thickness of one's coffin and outer coffin, and the number of years and months of mourning due to a deceased of a certain degree of kinship. This common contempt was very clearly voiced by a certain unknown person, recorded in the Analects. Confucius was walking one day in a country place and Ts-lu his faithful disciple was following behind, but had missed his trace. Ts-lu met an old man carrying some bamboo wares on his shoulder, and asked him whether he had seen his master. The old man replied: 'A man who does not work with his hands or know how to distinguish between the different kinds of grains … who is your master?' And without further ceremony he planted his stick and began to till the grass.

Owing to his adherence to his job-hunting habit, Confucius was continuously landing himself in difficulties. I have told you that Confucius left Wei once because he was made an assistant carriage driver, and once because the King looked at the flying cranes instead of listening to his conversation. He left his own country because the minister slighted him by neglecting to send the remnant of the meat offering which he felt as his due. In Chi, he felt so insulted that he left without eating his meal, carrying the cooked rice with him. When passing Sung, somebody wanted to kill him, and he had to travel in disguise. At Kuang, he was mistaken for Yang Hu, and kept a prisoner for some time. Later in Chen, he was surrounded and went without food for seven days. There was something about the haughtiness and self-importance of this man which aroused the violent antipathy of his contemporaries.

A Homeless Wandering Dog

But with all his shortcomings, inconsistencies and often unscrupulous conduct, Confucius remained a very charming character. The charm lies in his evident sincerity of purpose. When a man is sincere, we can excuse many of his evident faults. And Confucius had the saving grace of a sense of humour. Many of the saying recorded in the Analects an only be properly understood in the nature of light humorous remarks between him and his intimate disciples. Once Ts-kung said to him: 'Here's a precious stone. It is concealed in a casket, waiting for a good price for sale.' And Confucius replied: 'For sale, indeed for sale! I am the one waiting for sale!' Another time, Confucius and his disciples had lost track of each other in the city of Cheng. Some one saw Confucius standing at the East Gate, and told Ts-kung: 'There is a man at the East Gate, with a head like that of Emperor Yao, a neck like that of Kao-yao, and a shoulder like that of Ts-tsan, but from the waist downwards is shorted than Emperor Yu by three inches. He appears crestfallen like a homeless wandering dog.' When they had found each other, and Ts-kung had told the story to Confucius, the latter said: 'The first part of the description is not quite right, but "like a homeless wandering dog", he's quite right, he's quite right!' I believe here we have at last arrived at the true Confucius, erring, struggling, sometimes elated and sometimes despondent, but always retaining a personal charm and a good sense of humour, and able to laugh at a joke at his own expense. This is the true Confucius and not the immaculate saint of irreproachable character which the Confucian scholars and the western Sinologues would have us believe.