Confucius (Kongzi), often regarded as the greatest of the Chinese sages and as the most profound influence on Chinese civilization in general, was born in 551 B.C. in the state of Lu, in modern Shandong, where his descendants still live. The name Confucius is a Latinized form of the Chinese Kongfuzi, meaning “Master Kong,” drawn from his family name Kong. Much of what is believed about his life is legendary. Confucius is said to have been the youngest of 11 children in a family that was noble but fairly poor; his father died when he was about three. Confucius devoted himself to the study of ancient Chinese literature known as the Five Classics, including the Shu Jing, or Book of Documents, the Shi Jing, or Book of Odes, also called the Book of Songs, and the Yi Jing, or Book of Changes, a divination manual. According to traditional sources, he occupied various minor posts and was made minister of justice at about the age of 51 until his resignation c. 495 B.C. Confucius wandered from state to state for the next 13 years, teaching the Five Classics and attempting to persuade the state rulers he met of the need for social, political, and moral reforms. He spoke in favor of making education available to all, and promoted a view of education as dedicated to the advancement of character rather than vocational training. He was the first to advocate in any sustained way the notion of moral education through the rituals of the ancient dynasties and to insist that moral reform through such education could restore peace and harmony to society. His teachings are rooted in a deeply humanistic worldview, emphasizing the concept of ren, variously translated as “goodness,” “benevolence,” or “humaneness,” which he saw as the highest virtue. The man of ren who is capable of genuinely empathetic understanding that combines conscientiousness and altruism is the morally ideal person.
The work most directly associated with Confucius is The Analects, a collection of sayings attributed to Confucius and accounts of his deeds, together with his reflections on the Chinese classics. The Analects was probably put together by his pupils and their pupils, and finally consolidated by Han scholars some five or six centuries after Confucius’s death. The material is not systematic and is in some places historically inaccurate; it also includes some material that is clearly of much later date, as well as some that is alien or hostile. Nevertheless, The Analects is recognized as the most reliable source of Confucius’s thought. The Xiao Jing, or Book of Filial Piety, a collection circulating in part before Confucius but, by tradition, attributed to him, depicts conversations between Confucius and his disciple Zengzi, one of Confucius’s followers particularly renowned for the virtue of filial piety. The Book of Filial Piety was probably compiled by members of Master Zeng’s school and consolidated in later centuries. Both texts identify the duty of filial piety as a central ethical obligation: the obligation to love and care for one’s parents. The implications of this duty for the question of suicide are evident in both texts: one must not harm or destroy one’s body.
Analects 8.3 depicts Master Zeng, the disciple who is Confucius’s interlocutor in the Book of Filial Piety, as he is dying. Zengzi is asking his students to look at his hands and feet to ensure that he is still whole, and expresses satisfaction that he has preserved his body intact throughout his life—a duty central to filial piety. Thus Zengzi can expose his hands and feet, often at risk in early China, where amputation was a common punishment.
To injure or destroy one’s own body, or to allow it to be injured or destroyed, would be to violate one’s obligation to one’s parents; this obligation presumably precludes suicide. Consonant with this, the selection from the Book of Filial Piety, framed in the voice of Confucius, also describes the obligation to care for and preserve oneself, including one’s own body, as central to the obligation of filial piety.
Analects 8.13 and 14.12 both address willingness to give up one’s life, in 8.13 for the Dao or “Way,” and in 14.12 in times of danger as a characteristic of the “complete” or fully virtuous and cultured gentleman; it may also include a willingness to voluntarily sacrifice one’s life, not just risk the loss of it. The first three exemplary individuals mentioned in 14.12 are respected state officials; Ran Qiu was one of Confucius’s disciples.
Analects 14.16 and 14.17 refer to events that took place during the reign of Duke Huan, the official hegemon from 681–643 B.C. Duke Huan and his brother Prince Jiu were both exiles from their home state of Qi, which was ruled by their eldest brother. While in exile, Prince Jiu was served by his retainers Shao Hu and Guan Zhong. Upon their eldest brother’s death, Duke Huan, the youngest brother, returned to Qi to usurp power and ordered the death of his elder brother Prince Jiu and the return of his retainers Shao Hu and Guan Zhong. The expectation of the time was that retainers would commit suicide rather than serve another lord, and this is what Shao Hu did. However, Guan Zhong, on the other hand, willingly returned to serve Duke Huan and became his Prime Minister. It is not clear whether Confucius approves or disapproves of this serious breach of propriety; Confucius questions Guan Zhong’s ren, “benevolence” or “goodness,” the highest virtue for Confucius. Guan Zhong subsequently became a very famous political figure, and one of the most important political texts of the time, the Guanzi, was attributed to (and named after) him.
Analects 15.9 acknowledges that in some cases, morally ideal people will knowingly bring about their own destruction for virtuous ends. Although this passage is often translated as claiming that morally ideal people will sometimes “sacrifice” their lives in order to achieve goodness or ren, the Confucian text translated literally reads “kill themselves.” However, the focus seems to be on doing what is necessary to accord with ren, not on suicide per se. The extent to which Confucius distinguishes “suicide” from other forms of self-caused death is not entirely clear.
Over his lifetime, many gentleman-scholars and literati gathered around Confucius. Sima Qian’s [q.v.] Records of the Historian claims that by the time Confucius died, he had some 3,000 followers. Although, when at the age of 72 he was dying, Confucius is said to have felt that his life had not been a success, he has had incalculable effect on Chinese ethical and political thought. For centuries, as Edward Slingerland points out, in order to pass China’s civil service examinations, every educated Chinese person was required to memorize the Analects until the last nationwide exams in the early 20th century.
Confucius, The Analects, 8:3, 8:13, 14.12, 14:16, 14:17, 15:9, tr. Eirik Lang Harris. Some interpretive material from Confucius, The Analects, tr. Edward Slingerland, Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003; also from Eirik Lang Harris and Eric L. Hutton; Confucius, The Book of Filial Piety, tr. Eirik Lang Harris. Some interpretive material from The Sacred Books of the East: The Texts of Confucianism, Vol. III, Part I: The Shu King. The Religious Portions of the Shih King. The Hsiao King. tr. James Legge, Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1899, and from Eirik Lang Harris.
from THE ANALECTS
Zengzi was dying and summoned his students, “Uncover my feet! Uncover my hands! The Book of Odes says,
‘Trembling and cautious;
As if overlooking a deep abyss;
As if treading upon thin ice.’
But now, whatever may come, I know that I have escaped [mutilation], my young ones.”
The Master [Confucius] said, “Be earnestly trustworthy and love learning, and defend unto death the excellent Way. Do not enter an imperiled state; do not dwell within a disordered state. If the empire possesses the Way, then allow yourself to be seen. If it lacks the Way, then remain hidden. If a state possesses the Way, then if one is poor and humble, this is shameful. If a state lacks the Way, then if one is rich and honored, this is shameful.”
Zilu asked what was meant by a ‘complete person.’
The Master said, “One who is as wise as Zang Wuzhong, who is like Gongchuo in not being covetous, who is as brave as Zhangzi of Bian, who is as artistically talented as Ran Qiu, and who refines these traits by means of ritual and music, such a person could be called a ‘complete person.’”
He continued, “But in the present time, is it necessary that a ‘complete person’ have all of these attributes? If, when one sees a chance for profit, one thinks about what is right, when one sees danger one is prepared to give up one’s life, when h e does not forget for his entire life a promise made long ago, then one may be called a ‘complete person.’”
Zilu said, “When Duke Huan killed [his brother] Prince Jiu, Prince Jiu’s advisor, Shao Hu, died for Prince Jiu, but his other advisor, Guan Zhong did not.”
He continued, “Is Guan Zhong not lacking in ren [goodness]?”
The Master replied, “The reason why Duke Huan was able on numerous occasions to unite the feudal lords without resorting to war chariots was because of Guan Zhong’s strength. But in regards to his ren, in regards to his ren…”
Zigong said, “Guan Zhong was not ren, was he? When When Duke Huan killed [his brother] Prince Jiu, Guan Zhong was not able to die for Prince Jiu, and moreover served as Duke Huan’s Prime Minister.”
The Master said, “When Guan Zhong served as Duke Huan’s Prime Minister, the Duke made him hegemon over the feudal lords and united the empire. Even today, people are still benefiting from this. Were it not for Guan Zhong, we might all be wearing our hair loose and fastening the fronts of our garments on the left [as barbarians do]. How can we expect of him the petty sincerity of a common husband or wife, to hang himself in some ravine or ditch, with no one knowing of it?”
The Master said, “Among those who have [good] purpose and those who are ren, none will seek life at the expense of harming ren, and there are those who will cause death for their person in order to accomplish what is [or accords with] ren.”
from THE BOOK OF FILIAL PIETY
Once, when Confucius was resting at home, Zengzi was attending him. The Master said, “The Former Kings used the ultimate virtue and the crucial method in order to cause the empire to submit [to their authority]. Because of this the people were harmonious and peaceful, and that there was no resentment between superiors and subordinates. Do you know what it was?”
Zengzi rose from his mat respectfully and replied, “I am not perceptive; how could I be capable of knowing this?”
The Master said, “It was filial piety – the root of virtue and that from which all teaching stems. Sit down again and I shall explain it to you. Our body, limbs, hair, and skin are received from our parents, and so we do not dare to injure or harm them. This is the beginning of filial piety. When we establish ourselves and practice the Way so as to make our name known to future generations and thereby bring glory to our parents, this is the consummation o f filial piety. Filial piety begins in service to our parents, continues in service to our lord, and is consummated in establishing our place in the world [ and therefore our parents’ reputations].
The ‘Daya’ section of the Book of Odes says,
‘Never forget your ancestors;
Cultivate your virtue.’”