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Who was Confucius? - Bryan W. Van Norden


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Most people recognize his name and know that he is famous for having said something, but considering the long-lasting impact his teachings have had on the world, very few people know who Confucius really was, what he really said... and why. Bryan W. Van Norden reveals the man behind the mystery.

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The philosopher Karl Jaspers said that Confucius, Jesus, Socrates, and the Buddha were similar in that each was an “axial figure” in one of the world’s great philosophical or religious traditions, yet we know almost no indisputable facts about any of them. Consequently, almost everything about the life of Confucius (as with Jesus, Socrates, or the Buddha) is controversial.

Most of the quotations you hear attributed to Confucius are made up. Consequently, if you want to know what Confucius actually said, read him yourself. One of the most influential translations of the Analects was by the Victorian-era missionary James Legge. You can read Legge’s translation alongside the original Chinese text online. However, Legge’s English is a bit old-fashioned, and there are disagreements about how to translate many key passages. Consequently, it is worth consulting this bibliography of translations of the Analects and works discussing Confucius (Note that passage numbering sometimes differs slightly among translations).

Confucius’s lifetime was in the Spring and Autumn Period, an era in which China was divided into a number of states vying for supremacy. You can watch a biography of Confucius that presents many of the traditional myths about him. Interested in a more scholarly discussion of Confucius, his lifetime, and his later influence? Then, listen to Melvyn Bragg of the BBC and his guests talk about Confucius and his ideas. In addition, Stephen Prothero, author of the book God Is Not One, is interviewed about what is distinctive of Confucianism. Confucius has long drawn attention from Western scholars. Some articles focus on Confucius’s ethical and political philosophy, while other accounts emphasize Confucianism as a religious and social movement.

Along with Buddhism and Daoism, Confucianism is one of the Three Teachings of China, its three most influential religious and philosophical systems. Confucianism became state-sponsored ideology during the Han dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE). However, even after that time, the degree of influence of Confucianism varied greatly depending upon the preferences of the emperor and leading intellectuals. In some periods of Chinese history, Buddhism or Daoism was more influential. Views toward Confucius in 20th century China have also varied. During the ultra-leftist Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, Confucius was denigrated as a vestige of the decadent feudal past, as reflected in this propaganda poster, “The Evil Life of Confucius.” However, since the death of Mao, the Chinese government has become more sympathetic to Confucianism, with President Xi Jinping encouraging the study of Confucius. The Chinese government even supported a major feature film about Confucius. In Qufu, Confucius’s hometown, in Shandong Province, China, ritual offerings in honor of Confucius are again being performed. In addition, Professor Yu Dan’s Insights into the Analects recently became a surprise best seller in China.

References to Confucius often pop up in surprising places. In the recent US Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage, Justice Kennedy cited Confucius in his majority decision, setting off a storm of discussion among Chinese commentators. Finally, in her TED Talk, Karen Armstrong emphasizes the importance of the Golden Rule, which Confucius suggested was his most fundamental principle.

You can view the educator, Bryan W. Van Norden's faculty profile here

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Bryan W. Van Norden
  • Animator Tomás Pichardo-Espaillat
  • Script Editor Amy Adkins
  • Composer Cem Misirlioglu
  • Narrator Addison Anderson

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