This series has twelve easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: China at Confucius’ Birth.
He began as a political reformer, became a statesman, an administrator and then one of history’s greatest philosophers. His legacy was a revolution for China.
This selection is from Confucianism and Taouism by Robert K. Douglas published in 1889. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Robert K. Douglas was a British diplomat to China and a Professor of Chinese at Kings College, London.
Time: 551 BC – 479 BC
At the time of which we write the Chinese were still clinging to the banks of the Yellow River, along which they had first entered the country, and formed, within the limits of China proper, a few states on either shore lying between the 33d and 38th parallels of latitude, and the 106th and 119th of longitude. The royal state of Chow occupied part of the modern province of Honan. To the north of this was the powerful state of Tsin, embracing the modern province of Shanse and part of Chili; to the south was the barbarous state of Ts’oo, which stretched as far as the Yang-tsze-kiang; to the east, reaching to the coast, were a number of smaller states, among which those of Ts’e, Loo, Wei, Sung, and Ching were the chief and to the west of the Yellow River was the state of Ts’in, which was destined eventually to gain the mastery over the contending principalities.
On the establishment of the Chow dynasty, King Woo had apportioned these fiefships among members of his family, his adherents, and the descendants of some of the ancient virtuous kings. Each prince was empowered to administer his government as he pleased so long as he followed the general lines indicated by history; and in the event of any act of aggression on the part of one state against another, the matter was to be reported to the king of the sovereign state, who was bound to punish the offender. It is plain that in such a system the elements of disorder must lie near the surface; and no sooner was the authority of the central state lessened by the want of ability shown by the successors of kings Woo, Ching, and K’ang, than constant strife broke out between the several chiefs. The hand of every man was against his neighbor, and the smaller states suffered the usual fate, under like circumstances, of being encroached upon and absorbed, notwithstanding their appeals for help to their common sovereign. The House of Chow having been thus found wanting, the device was resorted to of appointing one of the most powerful princes as a presiding chief, who should exercise royal functions, leaving the king only the title and paraphernalia of sovereignty. In fact, the China of this period was governed and administered very much as Japan was up till about twenty years ago. For Mikado, Shogun, and ruling Daimios, read king, presiding chief, and princes, and the parallel is as nearly as possible complete. The result of the system, however, in the two countries was different, for apart from the support received by the Mikado from the belief in his heavenly origin, the insular position of Japan prevented the possibility of the advent of elements of disorder from without, whereas the principalities of China were surrounded by semi-barbarous states, the chiefs of which were engaged in constant warfare with them.
Confucius’ deep spirit of loyalty to the House of Chow forbade his following in the Book of History the careers of the sovereigns who reigned between the death of Muh in B.C. 946 and the accession of P’ing in 770. One after another these kings rose, reigned, and died, leaving each to his successor an ever-increasing heritage of woe. During the reign of Seuen (827-781) a gleam of light seems to have shot through the pervading darkness. Though falling far short of the excellencies of the founders of the dynasty, he yet strove to follow, though at a long interval, the examples they had set him; and according to the Chinese belief, as an acknowledgment from Heaven of his efforts in the direction of virtue, it was given him to sit upon the throne for nearly half a century.
His successor, Yew, “the Dark,” appears to even less advantage. No redeeming acts relieve the general disorder of his reign, and at the instigation of a favorite concubine he is said to have committed acts which place him on a level with Kee and Show. Earthquakes, storms, and astrological portents appeared as in the dark days at the close of the Hea and Shang dynasties. His capital was surrounded by the barbarian allies of the Prince of Shin, the father of his wife, whom he had dismissed at the request of his favorite, and in an attempt to escape he fell a victim to their weapons.
With this event the Western Chow dynasty was brought to a close.
Here, also, the Book of History comes to an end, and the Spring and Autumn Annals by Confucius takes up the tale of iniquity and disorder which overspread the land. No more dreadful record of a nation’s struggles can be imagined than that contained in Confucius’s history. The country was torn by discord and desolated by wars. Husbandry was neglected, the peace of households was destroyed, and plunder and rapine were the watchwords of the time.
Such was the state of China at the time of the birth of Confucius (B.C. 551). Of the parents of the Sage we know but little, except that his father, Shuh-leang Heih, was a military officer, eminent for his commanding stature, his great bravery, and immense strength, and that his mother’s name was Yen Ching-tsai The marriage of this couple took place when Heih was seventy years old, and the prospect, therefore, of his having an heir having been but slight, unusual rejoicings commemorated the birth of the son, who was destined to achieve such everlasting fame.