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Confucius, The Great Teacher, A Study - G G Alexander (1890)

Confucius, The Great Teacher, A Study - G G Alexander (1890)

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G. G. Alexander, English Interpretation & Translation (1890)
G. G. Alexander, English Interpretation & Translation (1890)

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In exile.

It was in the year B.C. 496 that Confucius took up

his residence at the capital of the principality of Wei.

Its ruler is described—and it is singular to observe

how many of the princes fall under the same category
—as a "

worthless, dissipated man;"

but he, not the less,

gave Confucius a hospitable reception, and assigned

him a yearly allowance of sixty thousand measures

of grain. By this time the great teacher had re-

covered his composure. Change of scene and the

incidents of travel seem always to have exercised

a beneficial influence upon him, and the natural

buoyancy of his temperament rendered him proof

against any long-continued attacks of depression.

His energy had increased, rather than diminished,

with years, and he lost no time in returning to his

favourite studies. He had, besides, a secret hope that

he might find in one of the neighbouring states some



public position which might compensate him for the

manner in which he had been treated in his own.

For he held on as tenaciously as ever to the prac-

ticability of applying his principles so as to improve

the conduct, and add to the happiness, of those who

might live under a government regulating its action

by them. Of this he was sanguine. Nevertheless

he had moments of discouragement, when, remember-

ing his many failures, he would exclaim, "

I do not

murmur against the decrees of Heaven, or seek to lay

the blame on my fellow-men ; but my motives are

misunderstood. I but strive to enforce a clearer con-

ception of the higher duties of our nature, by using

the means which Nature herself has afforded me, yet,

alas ! alas ! it is by Heaven alone that I am compre-


He remained nearly a twelvemonth in Wei, and

would have probably remained there longer, had it

not been for an incident by which his disciples were

greatly scandalized. The wife of the Prince of Wei

was a woman of such a notoriously bad character

that she was universally execrated. One day the

prince, having invited Confucius to accompany him

on an excursion into the country, drove through the

streets of his capital with his wife by his side, whilst

Confucius followed in another chariot. When the

people saw him they shouted out, "

Look, there goes



vice driving in front, with virtue following behind !


The sage saw at once that he had been placed in

a false position, and determined upon seeking some

other refuge.

It was whilst travelling towards the South, on the

borders of the principality of Sung, that one day,

being weary, he dismounted from his chariot and

seated himself in the shade of a wide-spreading tree.

In order to pass the time profitably, he began to

explain to his disciples the origin and intention of

the various rites. Whilst so occupied, an officer of

high military rank, in the service of the Prince

of Sung, passed by. He no sooner saw Confucius,

towards whom he entertained an intense dislike, than

he drew his sword and rushed towards him, with the

intention of killing him. Fortunately the philosopher

caught sight of him in time, and, retaining his pre-

sence of mind, effected his escape. His companions

were panic-stricken, and impatient of their master's

calmness, less perhaps on his account than on their

own, urged him to greater speed. "Why should I

hasten ? "

replied Confucius ;


if Heaven protects me,

why need I care for this man's anger ? "

This answer

did not reassure his friends

; perhaps they felt them-

selves unworthy of participation in Heaven's favour,

for they dispersed and fled. Left to himself, and

driven from the right road, Confucius directed his



steps to the capital of the state of Ching, which he

reached so utterly exhausted that he was obliged to

sit down on a stone outside the city gates. Here he

was seen by some of the inhabitants, who informed

one of his disciples, who had arrived before him, that

a man of noble and majestic mien was sitting outside

the city, so travel-stained and weary that he looked

like a tired dog who had lost his master. On this

description being repeated to Confucius by the dis-

ciple, who, suspecting the stranger could be no other

than his master, had at once hastened to him, he was

greatly amused, and declared that, whatever exaggera-

tion there might be with respect to the manner in

which he was described, there could be no doubt as

to the truth of that portion of it which declared him

to be like a homeless and tired dog.

Four years after his departure from Loo, the prince

died, and it seemed at first as if his great wish to

return was to be gratified. But his patience had yet

to be tried by many more weary years of exile.

A year later, when travelling with some of his

disciples in what is now the eastern portion of Honan,

their supplies having fallen short, he and his com-

panions were reduced to the last extremity for want

of food. When those around him gave way to mur-

murs and lamentations, Confucius remained unmoved,

and even played on the lute and sang, as was his




habit under more favourable circumstances. Instead

of encouraging, this gave great offence to his fellow-

sufferers. One of them, indeed, could not refrain

from upbraiding him, and asking whether it could

possibly be right for any one to play and sing when

those around him were dying of hunger. "

Know you

not," replied the sage, "that music is the means

which the superior man employs to keep down the

cravings of his animal nature when they strive to

obtain a mastery over him ?

" Another proof of the

high estimation in which music was held by him.

It has already been shown how music, as the

second of the six liberal arts^ had been studied and

reduced to a system in the early days of the empire.

But in the time of Confucius it was supposed to have

greatly deteriorated from the state of perfection to

which it had been brought in the halcyon days of the

immortal Shun, when the sweetness of its notes gave

harmonious indication of the gentle and benign dis-

position of the ruler, and of the happiness and con-

tent of the people over whom he ruled. It was

supposed to have become harsher in proportion as

the empire had been weakened by internal discord


and a relish for these ruder strains was regarded by

Confucius as a certain indication of the moral declen-

sion of the national character. Hence it was that it

became a cherished object with him to re-establish a



taste for those pure and lofty strains which had set

a stamp upon the music of the golden age. Accord-

ing to his theory, the extension of such a taste would

not only indicate an unmistakable advance in moral

culture, but would be one of the surest methods to

produce it. "

It is impossible," he once said, "

for a

vicious man to be a good musician."

It is doubtful whether the experiences of the age

in which we live would lead to the same conclusion.

He continued to move about from state to state

until, some four years after his departure from Wei,

we find him at the capital of the principality of Tsoo,

which now forms part of Hoo-pih, where he attracted

the favourable notice of the sovereign, and it was,

again, only through the intervention of his ministers

that he was prevented from giving him the govern-

ment of a large district. "

How," said they, "

can it be

safe for you to place a man in a prominent position

who has amongst his disciples three such men as

Tsze-kung, Yen-hwui, and Tsze-loo } There is not

an officer in your Majesty's dominions capable of

competing with them. With the aid of such men as

these is it likely he will employ his power for no

other purpose than to benefit the state of Tsoo ? Do

not forget how Woo and Wan, although they were

but the heirs of some hundred le, were able to make

themselves masters of the empire. Let your Majesty


1 55

be warned." The prince had not the courage to act

in opposition to this advice, and on his death, which

took place within the same year, Confucius decided

upon leaving Tsoo and returning to Wei.

In the mean time, great changes had taken place in

that state. Its prince had died four years before,

soon after the departure of Confucius, and the suc-

cession had devolved on his grandson, his son having

been put on one side in consequence of an attempt

made upon the life of his mother, the infamous Nan-

tsze. An internecine struggle was the consequence,

but though many tempting offers were made to

induce Confucius to take a part in it, he steadily

refused to do so, and he continued for nearly six

years without official employment, or taking any

active part in public affairs.

His previous wanderings had not been without

their use. We have passed over the details connected

with many of them, in order to avoid the frequent

repetition of all but similar incidents :

the same

dangers and fatigues ; receptions at various minor

courts ; and conversations in which the same ideas

are repeated in almost identical words —a narra-

tive, in fact, made tedious by its monotony. It is

sufficient to know that, during the whole period of his

exile, his zeal never flagged, and that, in whatever

circumstances he might be placed, he exhibited




the same earnestness and steadiness of purpose as


It is true that his efforts to induce the rulers of the

feudatory states to adopt his principles of govern-

ment had not met with much success ;

but his

doctrines had nevertheless gained ground, and it is

probable that his wandering life had caused them to

receive a far wider dissemination than would have

been the case if he had succeeded in obtaining office,

or had remained fixed at the court of some petty


His wanderings had, too, the effect of bringing

him into more direct contact with the masses, so

that his views had become popularized, and so widely

known, that numbers flocked to him for instruction

from all parts of the empire. It may be that he

found his pupils more ready to discuss his doctrines

than to adopt them in their daily lives ; but, when the

momentary mortification, which this may have caused,

had passed away, he would have had the consolation

of knowing that it is only through discussion that

any new political or social ideas can be brought

within the area of practical action.

In addition to this, in a comparatively rude age,

when there were but a few speculative thinkers, any

mode which would exercise and bring into play the

latent powers of the mind must have been useful



1 57

whilst a protracted course of oral teaching possessed

the great advantage, over other and shorter methods,

of enabling Confucius to place his doctrines before

his hearers in a form, which would better ensure their

being preserved and handed down in all their


Within a year of his return to Wei, he had to

mourn over the loss of his favourite disciple, Yen- )

hwui ; and a few years later, in the sixty-sixth year \

of his age, and the eleventh of his exile, he suddenly)

received the intelligence of the death of his wife. \

Some forty years had rolled by since their separation,

yet he was deeply moved. Perhaps some long-

slumbering recollections were awakened of the youth-

ful bride of his spring-tide days—those distant days

which in age seem as yesterday. Could it be that

the bright young being, which his fancy so vividly

recalled, had become old and had died } "

Yes "

said Confucius, as if in answer to his own thoughts


her span of existence is terminated, and it will not

be long before mine comes to an end."

Perhaps it was under the influence of these melan-

choly reflections, that he looked with longing eyes

towards the state he loved so well. His residence in

Wei had become distasteful to him. He had been

asked to take part in a personal feud, which he re-

sented as beneath his dignity, and he was just about



to remove into some other state, saying, "

It is the

bird which chooses the tree, not the tree the bird,"

when messengers arrived, bearing appropriate gifts?

and a message from Gae, Prince of Loo, inviting

him to return. This was in the year B.C. 483, and in

\ the thirteenth year of his exile.

Confucius was sixty-nine years old when he turned

his now faltering footsteps towards his fatherland.

Since he had last left it, death had been busy amongst

his opponents, whilst time had done much to mitigate,

if it had not quite-done away with, the hostile feelings

of those who remained. There is reason, too, for

believing that its softening influence, and the lessons

learnt in adversity, had not been without effect on

Confucius himself, and that, if his conviction of the

truth of his opinions was as strong as ever, he had

learnt to advance them with greater moderation. He

had grown calmer in his old age, and the excitement

and turmoil of public life had lost its charm. Although

he entered freely into conversation with the prince

and his ministers, he ceased to endeavour to influence

their opinions, or to regain any of the power he had

once possessed. Indeed, with the exception of an

attempt to elevate the tone of the national music, his

withdrawal from any participation in state affairs

was final and complete.

Every moment of his time was now spent in putting




the final touches to the revision and collocation of

the ancient classics, and in conversing with his friends

and disciples, on those all-absorbing topics which

had reference to the right performance of man's higher

duties. And so, we shall find, he continued to be a

teacher to the very end, giving grandiloquent utter-

ance to those ideas which, however commonplace

they may seem to us, procured for him, amongst

succeeding millions of his fellow-countrymen, the

lofty title of "The most holy teacher of ancient


But his joyousness of spirit had departed, for Age

was beginning to lay his hand heavily upon him.



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