Wind Sweeping Over Grass: The Influence of Confucius

July 24, 2008 Updated: October 1, 2015

A Chinese boy looks at an image of Confucius, the ancient Chinese philosopher. (Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images)
A Chinese boy looks at an image of Confucius, the ancient Chinese philosopher. (Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images)
Every year on September 28, people throughout Taiwan celebrate the birthday of Confucius. Confucius' Chinese name was Kung Fu Tse and he lived sometime between 551 BC to 479 BC. Some believe he was born in the Kingdom of Lu—today's Province of Shandong in mainland China.

Confucius lived during the age of Chun-Qiu, or the Spring and Autumn Periods (770 BC-476 BC), when the states that made up ancient China constantly fought each other for dominance. During that time, many ancient customs and moral values were swept away.

Confucius came from a poor aristocratic family. His father died when he was three years old. At an early age, rich and educated people gave him ancient writings and he became knowledgeable and wise through diligent study. He became known for a sharp intellect and great humility. Because of this, and despite his poor family background, he became an official of the emperor's court.

Confucius later resigned as an imperial official and began teachings. Soon, disciples gathered round him. He hoped his teachings could help to reestablish the correct social order, and began to travel throughout the Chinese empire with his disciples to spread his teachings. Dozens of years passed and none of the rulers showed much interest, or indicated that they were touched by his teachings.

Times were hard for Confucius and his disciples. They often had little food to eat when traveling from one state to the next, and at times almost starved to death. In his later years, he stopped spreading his teachings and concentrated on studying ancient texts. He gradually accepted more disciples in order to create a wide basis for the future dissemination of his teachings.   

Confucius was not recognized or appreciated until after his death. His disciples dispersed throughout the land, taking his teachings with them. The discussions he had with his disciples were written down in the book “Lunyu.”  

Confucius emphasized moral values—kindness, righteousness, politeness, wisdom and trust—and later generations of every social level came to appreciate them more and more deeply. About 2500 years after his death, his works became standard reading for the intellectual upper class. During the dynastic periods after his death, applicants for official positions were measured by how well they understood his works and by the articles they had written about them.

The emperors of many dynasties also followed his teachings. Emperor Tai Yong of the great Tang Dynasty was affected by how Confucius regarded governance.

Many things have been written down in Lunyu about the art of governance. For example, in the chapter, Yan Yuan, Duke Ji Kang asked Confucius about the principles of good governance.

“Is it right to kill evildoers so that good people obtain justice?”

Confucius answered: “You are here to govern, not to kill! If you really want good to flourish, your people will turn towards the good. The virtue of a noble ruler is like the wind; the virtue of his subjects is like grass. If the wind sweeps across the grass, the grass will bend.” (Translated by Erling Weinreich, 2003)

Confucius regarded a ruler as being virtuous if he could achieve two things: correct his own mistakes, and treat his fellow man well. In Lunyu, he wrote extensively about the personal actions of the ruler.

In order to win the trust of the people, the principle of his ancestors, a ruler must truly love his people. Confucius taught that a virtuous ruler's greatest priority was to secure order in society.

From his experience during the Spring and Autumn Period, a chaotic time with deep social conflicts, Confucius recognized that promoting moral values could not guarantee an ideal society. Punishment should serve as a last resort. Today, Western legal systems recognize this.

When asked how to act when the morality of the people declined, he wrote in chapter Yao in Lunyu: “To kill people before you educate them first is cruel.”

Confucius set forth the tenants known as Confucianism and was revered as a saint in China until the beginning of the communist era. The Greek philosopher Socrates, and Shakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism in India, were his contemporaries.