Confucius is commonly known as Kong Qiu— Kong being his surname and Qiu his given name. He was also given the courtesy name of Zhong Ni. Confucius’ father, Kong He, and his mother, Yan, had prayed at the Niqiu Mountain for a son, and so they named their child after that mountain.
Confucius was born in the 22nd year of the reign of Duke Xiang of the state of Lu (551 B.C.). His father passed away three years later, and when he was seventeen his mother passed away. When his father died the funeral ceremony took place at home instead of at a cemetery, so when Confucius grew up he had to find out where his father was buried and ensure his parents were buried together. Confucius may have felt a sense of remorse similar to the feeling he describes in the proverb “the son wants to support his parents but they are no longer alive.” This could also explain why he reprimanded his disciple Zai Yu for wanting to alter traditional funereal customs, saying “If only you could truly mourn your parents for three years.”
Confucius was not born into an aristocratic family, and so had to depend on his own abilities to make a living. After Confucius’ father passed away, his family suddenly became impoverished. He once said to his disciples, “As a child my family lived in poverty; that was how I came to develop various skills.” From what we know today, Confucius once helped to manage a warehouse, and at one point also raised cattle and sheep. Although these jobs may have been menial, they helped Confucius cultivate an independent disposition and a broad range of valuable life experiences from his youth.
However, Confucius did not just learn his various jobs. Influenced by his family, he often played with ceremonial objects as if they were toys when he was young and later followed the adults in using them. His interest in rites and music only grew with age. When Confucius was 27, the ruler of the State of Tan visited Lu, and Confucius arranged to meet him in order to receive instruction in the official ranking system. In addition, Confucius is said to have learned about the various rites and ceremonies from Laozi and learned the art of drums and zither from the music master Shi Xiangzi. Even when he was in his thirties and had a reputation for being knowledgeable about rites and ceremonies, studying Shao Music with renowned musicians from the State of Qi and becoming completely immersed in the world of music. He once said “I never expected to experience such joy from playing music.” When he heard that Yanling Jizi was planning to hold a funeral, he went to observe the ceremony because he knew Yanling Jizi was knowledgeable about rites and ceremonies from the State of Wu. From these examples, it can be seen how strongly Confucius was committed to the pursuit of knowledge.
Confucius valued the depth of knowledge just as much as he valued its breadth. When Confucius was learning to play the zither from Shi Xiangzi, his teacher said to him after ten days of practicing one piece, “It is time for you to learn the next tune.” Confucius replied, “Although I have learned the melody, I have not mastered the rhythm.” After another ten days on the same tune, the teacher said again, “You are ready to learn the next tune,” to which Confucius replied, “I have yet to discover the true spirit of the tune.” After another ten days, Confucius said, “I have yet to discover the composer’s intent.” Several days passed before Confucius finally said to Shi Xiangzi, “I can feel the composer’s character, but this type of personality could only belong to King Wen of Zhou.” When his teacher heard this, he exclaimed admiringly, “Exactly! I was teaching you to play the piece ‘Wen Wang Cao.’” According to the Analects of Confucius, when Confucius was young he asked about every little detail whenever he entered an ancestral temple. While he was helping to prepare for the rites, he would ask people about many aspects to resolve his uncertainties. This led some people to question if he was knowledgeable enough since he was asking questions about so many different things, but Confucius did not object to being criticized and he believed his behavior was necessary since he placed great importance upon the details of rites and ceremonies.
Compared to other learned persons during the Spring and Autumn Period, Confucius’ methods of learning may seem extremely laborious. Most people felt they only needed to develop the skills and knowledge required of their jobs, such as learning how to play an instrument if one was to be a musician, or learning about common rituals and ceremonies if one was to be a master of rites. Confucius, in contrast, not only sought to broaden his knowledge but also studied everything in great depth. As a young man he had already set his life-long goal and ambition. Although family circumstances forced him to take various jobs while he was young, he did not learn about music and rites simply for the purpose of working as a government official. He was truly passionate about various rites, music, and knowledge per se. By the time he was fifteen, Confucius had already embarked on his life-long endeavor and ever after that pursued the path of knowledge with fervent enthusiasm.
Review by Su-Fen Lin and Timothy Baker Jr.