Confucius’s Death Leads to the Creation of Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In recording the scholar-philosopher Confucius’s conversations, his followers epitomized his life and teachings, providing the foundation for Confucianism, a philosophical outlook that has shaped Chinese and other East Asian societies.

Summary of Event

On the eleventh day of the fourth month, 479 b.c.e., Confucius died. His death was not dramatic; according to tradition, he sensed that his time had come, took to his bed, and seven days later, expired. His life—which has been reconstructed by modern scholars largely from the Lunyu (later sixth-early fifth centuries b.c.e.; The Analects, 1861)—was neither especially dramatic nor especially successful. Confucius Zigong You Zi Zengzi

Briefly, according to The Analects, Confucius was a person of the highest intelligence and moral character. Both drawing on and augmenting a tradition of legendary sage-emperors, he conceived a project of political reform. Educated gentlemen of good character, or junzi, were to advise and assist rulers: Perhaps they would be able to develop wisdom in the ruler, and perhaps one of them would become a sage, or shengren, who held or strongly influenced governmental power. Stymied in the principality of Lu by the infighting among powerful clans, Confucius and his followers traveled for many years to adjoining states (c. 497-484 b.c.e.). Evidently, the Confucians were not welcomed with open arms by the nobles who ruled these states. No one turned over the reins of power to them or appointed Confucius to high office. Returning to Lu, he became embroiled in the conflict between its duke and the dominant Qi family, again with no happy result. He is generally supposed to have died disappointed and even embittered by the failure of his reformist project.

Confucius’s life does not seem to have been distinguished by the successful exercise of practical wisdom. He is represented in The Analects not as a philosophical innovator but instead as a traditionalist who followed established ways, especially those of the Zhou Dynasty (Chou; c. 1066-256 b.c.e.). His reformist project, which constitutes a “traditionalist revolution,”did not succeed.

It is necessary, then, to consider the reasons for Confucius’s prominence and especially the great esteem accorded him by his younger associates. According to the Liji (compiled first century b.c.e.; The Liki, 1885; commonly known as Classic of Rituals), Confucius’s followers mourned him as they would a father, that is, for three years. One of the most noteworthy, Zigong, extended this to six years, living in a hut that he built on the burial grounds. Zigong was one of two adherents who might have succeeded the master: He was considered by some in Lu to be superior to Confucius, an opinion that Zigong repudiated in apparent good faith, according to The Analects.

The other possible successor was You Zi. A story from the Classic of Rituals indicates that You Zi resembled Confucius, probably not physically but in thought and speech. Three of the leading Confucians—Zuxia (Tzu-hsia), Zizang (Tzu-chang), and Ziyou (Tsu-yu)—desired that You Zi replace the master whom he resembled. You Zi does not appear to have demurred concerning this proposal. However, Zengzi was deeply offended. In his view, Confucius was incomparable and therefore irreplaceable. He refused to participate in this scheme of succession, thus ending it.

It was in this context that The Analects was created. Despite lengthy and continuing, even intensifying, scholarly efforts, there are no definitive answers to the questions of who composed The Analects, when, and why. There is, however, general agreement on a number of points concerning the text, those primarily responsible for it, the existence of chronologically differing “layers” or “strata” in it, and the date when The Analects was crafted into final form. The question of the purposes of this multi-authored text is, inevitably, controversial and interpretative.

For a text central to the shaping of billions on billions of human lives, The Analects is almost shockingly short and, on its face, simple. It consists of twenty “books”; but these books are short chapters of a few pages apiece. Most of the books consist of Confucius’s statements or very short dialogues with followers (or both), although famously book 10 characterizes Confucius’s habitual behavior and book 19 contains only statements from prominent followers.

Book 19 is crucial in understanding the formation of The Analects. Most scholars hold that it was the five “major disciples” of book 19 (with You Zi included, Zigong excluded) who began the process of remembering Confucius. Zigong’s evident humility and Zengzi’s pronounced filial piety established that neither You Zi nor anyone else would replace Confucius. If the rapidly splintering groups of Confucians were to maintain relative coherence and harmony, a central focus was indispensable. It had been Confucius who brought together the seventy-odd identified “Confucians.” It was to be shared memories of Confucius’s person, his words, his actions, and not least, his hesitations and misfortunes that would loosely bind together his followers and their followers.

Enormous critical energy has been expended in attempting to determine the order in which the pieces of The Analects originated and were recorded, transmitted, revised, and assembled. Very likely, the process of remembering occurred during the century following Confucius’s death; but some would extend this period to two and even three centuries. It is appropriate to suggest that a text recording conversations was itself developed slowly and conversationally. Sustained and persuasive analysis has discerned the presence of at least two and probably three (or more) “strata” in The Analects, the oldest of them being books 3 through 15, but with 8 joining 1 and 2 in a middle layer, and 10 together with 16 through 20 in the most recent. Three different versions of The Analects were extant early in the Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-220 c.e.); but these were synthesized into a single generally adopted version by Zhang Yu (Chang Yu) toward the end of the first century b.c.e.


Every seminal text speaks differently to different times, cultures, and people. Given the uncertainties of its composition, this is especially true of The Analects. This uncertainty is fitting and indicative because one of the important themes of the work is the uncertainties encountered in any attempt to influence those possessing governmental power. If Confucius set out to rule directly or to be the wise and moral power behind some great throne, then his life was a failure, probably an embittering failure.

His followers, however, certainly did not regard him as such. The Analects is a memorial and not merely to a remarkable and beloved teacher. Its gradual, deliberate composition permitted reflection on Confucius’s experiences and conversations. Viewed comprehensively, The Analects is a record of a life devoted to learning. Some of the learning was derived from old, inherited writings, which Confucius—and his younger associates—studied, commented on, and rearranged until they became the Five (once Six) Classics. A very important part of the learning was derived from trying to improve humanity. No doubt, this experience was often painful and frustrating, especially as it involved dealing with powerful, recalcitrant men; but it must have been steadily instructive. Finally, Confucius learned of the irreducible diversity of human beings as every attentive teacher learns, from the characteristic questions, preoccupations, and ambitions of his students.

This devotion to complex learning, manifested in The Analects, constitutes the Confucian tradition. The life of learning complexly is a mean, an equipoise, between solitary thinking and unreflective action. Confucius’s gift to his followers, in the fifth century b.c.e. and for two millennia thereafter, was the life of learning. People tend to speak of a way of life, but what the Confucian tradition offers is a life of the Way, the Dao, which finds and follows the path of balance and harmony. According to The Analects, intrinsic to this harmony of being is a sincere effort to improve public life, although these situations might appear to be hopeless.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ames, Roger T., and Henry Rosemont, Jr. The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation. New York: Ballantine Books, 1998. Ames and Rosemont incorporate the recently discovered Dingzhou (partial) text of The Analects and provide both a complete text and studies of The Analects, in paperback. They include the Chinese text chapter-by-chapter with translations; a lengthy historical, textual, and philosophical introduction; extensive notes; appendices; and a bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Confucius. The Analects (Lun yu). Translated by D. C. Lau. New York: Penguin Books, 1979. The standard paperback translation. Lau’s approach is traditional, relating Confucius’s life and followers to The Analects. Introduction, useful appendices, and glossary of persons and places.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Creel, H. G. Confucius and the Chinese Way. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1960. Originally published in 1949 as Confucius: The Man and the Myth. A standard, widely available biography and interpretation, the book treats Confucius and his followers as progressive reformers. An appendix on The Analects, notes, references, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fingarette, Herbert. Confucius: The Secular as Sacred. 1972. Reprint. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1998. A very short but interesting and influential work. Treating core Confucian terms, Fingarette endeavors to demonstrate the gap between traditional Chinese and individualistic Western thinking. Fundamental and provocative, with a few notes and a very short bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schwartz, Benjamin I. The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985. A scholarly but relatively accessible study. Schwartz interprets Confucius as an idealistic traditionalist seeking to restore a comprehensive normative sociopolitical order. Notes, bibliography, glossary, and index.
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Categories: History