one rendering of Confucius
Confucius (551 to 479 B.C.) is regarded as the founder of Confucianism, a system of philosophical and ethical teachings that lies at cornerstone of Chinese culture and morality. Based on the little direct evidence about him that still survives, it appears that he did not view himself as the founder of the school of thought that bears his name, much less as the originator of anything. The self-conscious identity among people tracing their heritage back to him took place long after his death.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Confucius (the Latinized version of Kong Fuzi, “master Kong”) or, to call him by his proper name, Kong Qiu lived during the time when the Zhou kingdom had disintegrated into many de facto independent feudal states which were subject to the Zhou kings only in theory. Confucius was a man of the small feudal state of Lu. Like many other men of the educated elite class of the Eastern Zhou, Confucius traveled among the states, offering his services as a political advisor and official to feudal rulers and taking on students whom he would teach for a fee. Confucius had an unsuccessful career as a petty bureaucrat, but a highly successful one as a teacher. A couple of generations after his death, first. and second-generation students gathered accounts of Confucius’ teachings together, and these teachings remain influential in China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan to this day. These anecdotes and records of short conversations go under the English title of the Analects. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

Confucius appears to have been devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, in his words, “for the sake of the self." In “The Analects”, Confucius is recorded as saying: "At 15, I set my heart on learning; at 30, I firmly took my stand; at 40, I had no delusions; at 50, I knew the Mandate of Heaven; at 60, my ear was attuned to the truth; at 70, I followed my heart's desire without overstepping the boundaries of what was right." One similarity between Confucius and Jesus is that both offered an alterative lifestyle to greed and the pursuit of power.

Good Websites and Sources on Confucianism: Robert Eno, Indiana University; Confucianism ; Religion Facts Confucianism Religion Facts ; Confucius ; Confucian Texts Chinese Text Project ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Cult of Confucius / ; ; Virtual Temple tour; Wikipedia article on Chinese religion Wikipedia Academic Info on Chinese religion ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies; Qufu Wikipedia Wikipedia Travel China Guide Travel China Guide ; UNESCO World Heritage Site: UNESCO

Books: There is a classic account of Confucius’s biography by Herrlee Creel: “Confucius, The Man and the Myth “(New York: 1949, also published as “Confucius and the Chinese Way”), and a recent book by Annping Chin, “The Authentic Confucius: A Life in thought and Politics “(New York: 2007). According to Dr. Robert Eno: “Among the many translations of the “Analects” , well crafted versions by Arthur Waley (New York: 1938), D.C. Lau (Penguin Books, 1987, 1998), and Edward Slingerland (Indianapolis: 2003) are among the most accessible published. The “Analects” is a terse work with an exceptionally long and varied commentarial tradition; its richness and multiple levels of meaning make it a living document that reads differently to each generation (as true in China as elsewhere). Responsible interpreters vary in specific choices and overall understanding, and no single translation can be viewed as “definitive.”

Interpretations of Confucius

Commentaries of the Analects

Confucius is considered the most influential educator of all Chinese. He lived roughly the same time as Socrates and scholars often like to compare the two in terms of influence over East and West. Confucius did not achieve his political ideals when he was alive, but his philosophy informed many later emperors. Confucius' disciples compiled “The Analects”, which represent the essence of his and their thoughts.

The historian Daniel Boorstin wrote: Confucius "claimed no divine source for his teachings, nor any inspiration not open to everyone. Unlike Moses, the Buddha, Jesus, or Mohammed, he proclaimed no Commandments... Confucius was never crucified, never martyred. He never led a people out of a wilderness nor commanded forces in battle. He left little mark on the life of his time and aroused few disciples in his day." The religious scholar A.C. Graham wrote: “He was not the founder of a religion, nor was he a philosopher; he was a gentleman whose sense of what is done and what is not done has been taken as a standard." Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: Confucius’s “ideas made him the Zelig of the Chinese classics. His story runs through the ancient books—the Analects, Zuozhuan, Mengzi, the Records of the Grand Historian—with details that range from historical to mythical.”

In “Stray Dog: My Reading of the Analects,” Li Ling, a Peking University professor, criticized the “manufactured Confucius.” He wrote, “The real Confucius, the one who actually lived, was neither a sage nor a king. . . . He had no power or status—only morality and learning—and dared to criticize the power élite of his day. He travelled around lobbying for his policies, racking his brains to help the rulers of his day with their problems, always trying to convince them to give up evil ways and be more righteous. . . . He was tormented, obsessed, and driven to roam, pleading for his ideas, more like a stray dog than a sage.”

Confucius’s Name and Teachings

Confucius’s Chinese name was Kong Qiu. Confucius is the Latinized version of "Kongzi", his name in Putonghua (Mandarin). Kongfuzi or Kong-fu-tzu (Deeply Revered Master Kong), Kong Qui, Kongzi or Kong-tze (Master Kong) are all names by which he is known in China. Kong was his family name. His given name, Qiu, means "hill," a reference to a bump on his head at birth. No one knows what he looked like. The images of him with a beard, gown and ceremonial hat were made 1,500 to 2,000 years after his death.

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “ Confucius is usually regarded as the first philosophical thinker in China, and while some claim that his thought was far too unsystematic to be called “philosophy,” it is certainly true that he was the earliest Chinese thinker to articulate a coherent ethical vision. Confucius himself did not write a book, but a collection of his teachings and of brief descriptions of him and his life was collected over a period of three centuries in the book we call the “Analects” .” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/ ]

“The name Confucius is a “Latinized” version of a respectful way of referring to Confucius in Chinese. Confucius’s Chinese family name was Kong, and people referred to him as “Kong Fuzi” because “"fuzi” means “honorable master.” Westerners first learning about Chinese culture in the 17th and 18th centuries usually wrote scholarly works in Latin, and “Kong-fuzi” became “Confucius.” The suffix, "zi"...translates as “Master”: thus his title in Chinese means Master Kong, and Confucian texts often refer to him simply as “The Master.”“ /+/

Confucius’s Birth and Family

Confucius and children

Confucius was born and lived most of life on Qufu, a town in the interior of Shandong, an area sometimes regarded as China's Holy land. His descendants still live in Qufu today. In Qufu Confucius is believed to have been born at nearby Mount Ni. The town served as a capital of the State of Lu during the Spring and Autumn Period (722-476 BC).

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: “His father, Shuliang He, was an aging warrior—physically enormous and famously ugly—who was desperate for a healthy son. When he was in his seventies, he found a teen-age concubine, and they had a son, in 551 B.C. The baby, like his father, was unsightly, with a crooked nose and a bulbous forehead so peculiar that he was given the name Qiu, meaning “mound.” (Admirers insisted that his head resembled a crown.) When Confucius was three, his father died, and his mother set off with her toddler to find a livelihood. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, January 13, 2014]

Thomas A. Wilson of Hamilton College wrote: “Kongzi was born in the Watch Tower (Queli) district of Qufu, then the capital of the State of Lu of the Zhou kingdom. His birth has been shrouded in myth, but some things we do know are that Kongzi was the son of Shuliang He. He, according to some sources, was a descendant of a less prestigious lesser branch of a ducal lineage of the neighboring state of Song. Kongzi's father died before he was three, leaving him to be raised by his mother, Yan Zhengzai. [Source:Thomas A. Wilson, Hamilton College, the Cult of Confucius: Images of the Temple of Culture / . Wilson co-authored “Lives of Confucius: Civilization's Greatest Sage Through the Ages” with Michael Nylan (Berkeley).

“According to non-canonical sources, Kongzi was conceived when his mother went to Mount Ni and was inseminated by a black god, sometimes depicted as a black dragon or water god. Later, a unicorn appeared to Kongzi's mother to indicate the imminent birth of the successor of the Zhou ruling house as the uncrowned king. When Kongzi was born, two dragons circled around the family's house and five elderly beings descended from heaven to their courtyard. Kongzi was born with the forty-nine birthmarks of a sage, as well as words inscribed on his chest that suggested he would order the world through mandated regulations. One of the birthmarks of a sage was his long earlobes, which is easily observed in many of Kongzi's portraits, such as the one on the right.”

Dr. Eno wrote: “Confucius was born to low social rank.” His “father was an impoverished nobleman and seems to have been a member of a family with ties to an important clan within the traditional aristocracy in Lu. Although his forbears were patricians, probably originally from the neighboring state of Song, his branch of the family had sunk very low, and according to his own words, as reported by his disciples, when he was a young man Confucius was occupied in a succession of minor jobs.” [Dr. Eno wrote a rather technical historical article about the specifics of Confucius’s personal background (and of the origins of the Ru) entitled “The Background of the Kong Family of Lu and the Origins of Ruism.”] /+/

Early Life of Confucius

Confucius on his way to Luoyang

Confucius was a native of the state of Lu, the patrician state founded by the Duke of Zhou on the Shandong peninsula, east of present-day Beijing. During Confucius’s lifetime, Lu was in a state of political chaos. The ducal house had gradually lost power to three cadet branches of the ruling clan, and these branches, each led by a warlord strongman in a walled city, competed in the exploitation of the population of Lu to their own ends. These internal divisions had weakened the state, which was, in fact, destined to be absorbed into its much larger neighbor to the east, Qi.

Confucius was the youngest of eleven children. His father died when he was three and he was brought up by his mother. As a boy, he worked but also found time to lose himself in poetry and learning. .At the age of six, people commented about his fondness for rituals and sacrifices. Confucius was educated in the aristocratic arts of archery, ritual, arithmetic, calligraphy, charioteering and music. He loved learning and purportedly memorized the whole Book of Poetry, the classic Chinese anthology of three hundred poems. He also reportedly liked to eat raw fish from the Yellow River.

Confucius was married at the age of 19 and fathered one son and several daughters. He also kept a cat. When his mother died when he was in his twenties, Confucius mourned and isolated himself for 27 months. At that time he was bored and frustrated, because he lacked the connections to attain his goal of being a scholar-bureaucrat.

Confucius seems to have always been poor, but his noble connections meant that he did not have to labor as a peasant, and minor government positions in his home state of Lu were available to him. His first job was as a clerk overseeing pastures of oxen and sheep. As a young man he made a name for himself by helping the poor and fighting against oppressive taxes. Later, he held several government positions, the highest of which was Chief Justice of the State, and was highly respected for his wisdom and knowledge. His disciples were very active in the government of the Chi family who had usurped power from the Lu family.

Confucius's Character

Confucius did not consider himself an original thinker. Instead he called himself a "transmitter," who tried to resurrect old customs and rituals that he felt had a place in reforming the turbulent world he lived in. On religion, he said. "Respect the gods, but have as little to do with them as possible." Confucius rarely wrote anything and most of what has been attributed to him was written down by his followers and passed down from generation to generation.

“He liked conversations. They helped him think, but he never expected anyone to write them down,” historian Annping Chin wrote in “The Authentic Confucius: A Life of Thought and Politics” (2007). “Confucius did not wish to have his words end up as rules. He loved the idea of being human. He loved the entirely private journey of finding what was right and feasible among life’s many variables.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, January 13, 2014]

Confucius could be quite obsessive. He once described himself as “the sort of man who forgets to eat when he tries to a solve a problem that is driving him to distraction, who is so full of joy that he forgets his worries and who does not notice the onset of old age." He could also be fussy. It was said, “He did not sit, unless his mat was straight."

Western-rendering of Confucius

According to the “Analects” : 1) “The Master said, “To eat coarse greens and drink water, to crook one's elbow for a pillow, joy also lies therein. If they are not got by righteous means, wealth and rank are to me like the floating clouds.” 2) The Master said, “I have never refused to teach any who offered as much as a bundle of dried sausages.” 3) The Master said, “I have spent whole days without eating, whole nights without sleeping in order to ponder. It was useless — not like study!” 4) The Master ruled out four things: Have no set ideas, no absolute demands, no stubbornness, no self. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The Master said, “I am not a man who was born with knowledge; I am one who loves what is old and is quick in pursuing it.” The Master said, “At fifteen I set my heart on study. At thirty I took my stand. At forty I was free from confusion. At fifty I learned the decree of Heaven. At sixty I heard it with a compliant ear. At seventy I can follow the desires of my heart and never cross beyond the proper bounds.” (Analects 2.4) Translated another way these passage reads: “The Master said, “At fifteen, my heart was set upon learning; at thirty, I had become established; at forty, I was no longer perplexed; at fifty, I knew what is ordained by Heaven; at sixty, I obeyed; at seventy, I could follow my heart’s desires without transgressing the line.”

The Master said, “To silently take note of things, never have my fill of studying, and teach others without tiring: what difficulties do these things present to me?” (7.2) If on a particular day the Master had wept, he did not on that day sing. (7.10) When the Master sang with another and approved of his companion’s song, he would ask him to repeat it, and only after would he join in harmony. (7.32) When the Master fished he would never use a net; when shooting he would never aim at roosting birds. (7.27) At court, when his lord requested him to escort a guest he would appear greatly startled, as if his legs were giving way. (10.3) The Master seldom spoke of profit, or allowed that an event was destined or that a person was “ren”. (9.1) The Master said, “I am not a man who was born with knowledge; I am one who loves what is old and is quick in pursuing it.” (7.20) The Lord of She questioned the disciple Zilu about Confucius. Zilu did not know how to answer. The Master said, “Why didn’t you simply say that I am the type of man who forgets to eat when he becomes engrossed, who, in his happiness, has forgotten care, and who does not know that old age is approaching?” (7.19) /+/

Emergence of Confucius as a Thinker and Educator

Unable to realize his ambition of becoming a bureaucrat, Confucius taught students in different social class.Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: It was an era of war and corruption, and Confucius argued that rituals could teach people to reconcile their desires to the needs of family and community. He was an optimist. A virtuous ruler, he said, is like the wind: “The moral character of those beneath him is the grass. When the wind blows, the grass bends.”

Dr. Eno wrote: “As a young man, Confucius came to take a keen interest in the codes of ritual etiquette that had governed all aristocratic interaction during the grand days of the Zhou Dynasty, several centuries earlier. He became concerned that these codes were increasingly discarded in ordinary conduct, and even in religious and court ritual settings where they had been most elaborate. In the mind of the young Confucius, the chaotic and dangerous social and political conditions of the Warring States era was linked to the decay of these codes, which Confucius came to see as the binding force that had preserved the social and political harmony of the first few centuries of Zhou rule. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Confucius’s expertise in Zhou ritual forms led to his becoming a teacher of aspiring aristocrats in the state of Lu. Many regard him as the first professional private teacher in Chinese history. Fathers anxious that their sons take advantage of new opportunities to gain power and influence at the courts of the duke of Lu and other powerful aristocratic power.holders sent their children to study with Confucius. This is the origin of Confucianism as a “Finishing School.” /+/

“But Confucius trained these young men with other ideas in mind – he hoped that his work as a teacher would have far reaching political consequences. For Confucius, the harmonious past had been a peak of human excellence, while the disorderly present was a time of decline. He was not willing simply to accept tuition payments from wealthy fathers and enhance their sons’ chances of achieving wealth and rank in a debased age. He wanted to use the leverage of his position as teacher of noble youth to change the age – to link the revival of Zhou ritual forms to the generation of a new era of excellence. /+/

Confucius's Teachings

Confucius and his students

Confucius talked about goodness and morality. He argued for a return to a mythical state of social harmony that existed in the past through filial and ceremonial piety, reverence towards authority and harmony with thought and consciousness. While his ideas weren't original, they caught on because they were packaged in such a way that people could understand, embrace and follow them. Confucius urged people to think for themselves and stand up for what the thought was right. He told his disciples, “If I feel in my heart that I am wrong, I must stand in fear even though my opponent is the least formidable of men. But if my own heart tells me that I am right, I shall go forward even against thousands and tens of thousands."

Many fables about Confucius have a political message. Once Confucius and his disciplines came across a woman crying at a recently dug grave. When asked why she was crying the woman said, "My husband's father was killed here by a tiger, and my husband also, and now my son have met the same fate." When asked why she didn't want to leave the spot, she answered, "At least here there is no oppressive government." "Remember this my children, Confucius said, "oppressive government is fiercer and more feared that a tiger."

Dr. Eno wrote: “Despite being a man of no consequence to the patrician order, Confucius seems to have attracted the attention of high ranking patricians because of his original ideas and because he developed a particular mode of training which he offered, for a fee, to any who cared to undertake it. It seems that from his youth, Confucius had been attracted to the cultural trappings of Zhou Dynasty social arts: court poetry and music, refined martial arts training, and the ritual codes that were prescribed for use in clan and state temples and at court. Such forms had come to be known as the “”li””, or “rituals,” of the Zhou. He became, through self-training, a master of these, and he offered himself as a tutor for young men of promise – his instruction was, perhaps, initially comparable to that of a “finishing school,” imparting to patrician sons a polish in court behavior and etiquette that would allow them to make the most of their social and political opportunities during an era when “talent” was beginning to compete with pedigree as a criterion for social advancement. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Confucius, however, saw the training he offered as something far more than a social veneer. His interest in the ritual forms of the Zhou was based in his conviction that these were the expression of a destined human evolution towards a type of species perfection; for him, “li” were the flower of the human past and the blueprint for a future utopia. He believed that “li” offered the solution to all of China’s political problems, and he also saw in “li” the patterns which could elevate Chinese further and further above the animals (and non-Chinese “barbarians!”). “li” were the basis of human goodness and the path towards sagely perfection. /+/

“The great subtlety of early Confucianism derives from the fact that its core, ritual, initially appears to be merely a trivial concern with social polish but turns out to be – surprisingly – the basis of all human virtues, life skills, and sentiment. This is a role that Westerners often find puzzling: ritual and etiquette have rarely been a central concern to Western thinkers, and students of texts such as Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason”, for example, would not be inclined to substitute ritual for reason as the core of humanity. Nevertheless, during the late Classical period, Confucian ideas became increasingly significant in China, and Confucius is often thought of as the single most influential man in ancient China. /+/

Confucius's Great Failed Reformist Plan

Confucian finally landed a government post he so coveted, He had hoped to attain a high public office so that he could reorganize society with a bureaucracy set up on his beliefs, but because he was active in period of political and moral upheaval, he could never achieve the position he wanted and there were few opportunities for his reforms to be enacted during his lifetime.

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: His reforms threatened other officials, and, as legend has it, they concocted a plan to drive him out: They sent his superior eighty beautiful girls, who succeeded in occupying the boss so thoroughly (he disappeared for three days) that the righteous Confucius had to leave. Humiliated, Confucius began travelling about the country, pointing out abuses. He met a woman whose husband and son had been eaten by tigers, and he told his disciples, “An oppressive government is more terrible than tigers.” Confucius was so radical that a fellow-sage, Laozi (said to be the founder of Taoism), warned him against “all this huffing and puffing, as though you were carrying a big drum and searching for a lost child.” To Confucius, harmony was consensus, not conformity. It required loyal opposition. A country is at risk, he said, when a prince believes that “the only joy in being a prince is that no one opposes what one says.” Warlords ignored him or tried to kill him.

Confucius as an administrator

Dr. Eno wrote: “One of the features of the political life of the state of Lu, in which Confucius lived, was that political power was no longer actually in the control of the supposed leader of the state, the duke, whose ancestors had been granted the right to rule by the founders of the Zhou dynastic house. Real power had for some time fallen into the hands of the leaders of three warlord clans, who each lived in large fortified palace towns and who each held court over a group of “ministers” and “officers” as if they were legitimate rulers of state. The real duke’s court had become little more than an empty show. This was a situation very common among the various mini.countries of Warring States China, and reflected the large-scale problem that the nominal king who supposedly ruled over all the feudal states of China, the inheritor of the Zhou throne, was actually no more than a figurehead ruler, without real power to control any of the feudal states. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Confucius believed that for a new era of excellence to begin in his state of Lu, the first order of business was to overthrow the power of the warlords and restore control of the state to the duke and his court. He believed that if he could engineer this result, he would also gain enough leverage with the duke to convince him to reform the manner in which he ruled the state of Lu by restoring the institutions of the Zhou in their original and proper form. /+/

“Once this had been done, Confucius believed that Zhou institutions were so powerful and the ruler who re.adopted them would carry so much prestige personally that the peoples of the states next door to Lu would quickly acknowledge their legitimacy. They would either submit directly to the reformed rule of the duke of Lu, or join with the duke and others in a movement to restore Zhou institutions throughout China and recentralize power in the long. powerless figure of the Zhou king. In this way, the new era dawning in Lu would quickly spread throughout China. Either the Zhou would recover its past grandeur or a new king would found a new dynasty building on Zhou ritual and institutions. Either way, the harmony that had characterized the great eras of the Zhou founder and of earlier generations of sage rulers would be recovered in a new utopia.” /+/

“At sometime near the year 500, as he approached the age of fifty, Confucius determined that the time had come to implement this grand plan. Among his students now numbered several who had over the years risen to key positions at the court of the duke of Lu and at the courts of the warlord power.holders of the state. Along with these disciples, Confucius initiated a diplomatic initiative designed to lead to the disarmament of the warlord clans, the de.fortification of their palaces, and the return of power to the duke. We don’t know the details of Confucius’s plan. What we know for certain is that the result was a fiasco for Confucius. The warlords did not disarm; instead, they reasserted their power over the duke and drove Confucius into exile.’ /+/

Confucius’s Life as a Wanderer

After perceiving his "divine mission" at the age of 50 Confucius retired from his administrative positions and spent the next 13 or so years wandering China and offering unsolicited advise to Chinese rulers, administrators and warlords. Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “ Confucius wandered from state to state in Eastern China, in search of a ruler who would listen to his Dao, adopt his vision of government, and grant Confucius a role in the reform of the state and the dawn of a new era. During these years, Confucius and those disciples who traveled with him endured bitter hardships. Several times they found themselves isolated on the point of starvation, at other times they were threatened by local warlords who feared Confucius’s political message. In the end, although Confucius did attract the support of important people in several states, enemies of his Dao always prevailed. Confucius never did find a feudal ruler who would adopt his Dao or provide him with official patronage. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The wanderings of Confucius and the hardships he and his disciples endured became an important legend for later generations of followers. Not only was Confucius pictured as almost saintly in his ethical determination and endurance, many of the disciples who remained faithful to him became important inspirations for later students. This is one reason why, when we read the “Analects” , so many of the passages about Confucius also include the words or actions of major disciples, such as the noble Yan Hui, Confucius’s finest student, who died young, Zixia, the disciple who most thoroughly mastered the ancient Zhou texts that Confucius taught, Zigong, the follower whose questions to Confucius probed deepest, and Master Zeng, the youngest disciple, who after Confucius’s death emerged as the most influential Confucian teacher of the next generation.” /+/

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: After his “years of wandering, Confucius returned home to his books, and he died, in his seventies, convinced that he was a failure. Of his three thousand students, only seventy-two were true disciples, said to have mastered his teachings, which they compiled in the Analects. His rules made him exhausting to be around. “When the meat was not cut squarely, he would not eat,” his disciples wrote. “When a thing was not accompanied by its proper sauce, he would not eat.” But in times of war or instability his dictates on how to dress, how to govern, and how to live held out the tantalizing promise of order. A prime minister later remarked, “With just half the Analects, I can govern the empire.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, January 13, 2014]


Confucius’s Disciples

Dr. Eno wrote: “Having established himself as a private tutor while still a young man, Confucius managed to attract into his circle a number of young patricians with considerable social influence in the state of Lu. At Confucius’s residence, these men were thrown together with others of far more modest backgrounds, and during the last decade of the sixth century, this mix seems to have produced a certain shade of political radicalism in the Confucian group. Although our records are scanty, it appears that Confucius and some of his disciples developed a specific plan for restoring political power to the duke of Lu, and that about the year 500 they put their plan into action. Whatever the specific plan may have been, it did not work, and the result was that Confucius and a number of his disciples were obliged to leave the state of Lu. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“During the period 500-485 B.C., when Confucius wandered in exile among the states of eastern China, searching for a ruler who would adopt Confucius’s principles and, presumably, appoint Confucius to a position of significance at court, he continued to attract disciples, though as it became increasingly apparent that his political mission would not succeed, more of these seem to have directed their interests to the purely aesthetic and literary aspects of Confucius’s course in training. Gradually, the political activism of the group became a type of settled rhetorical stance, and the goals of disciples increasingly became the mastery of cultural forms that would earn them non-political jobs at court as tutors, ritualists, or scribes. /+/

“When Confucius was about 65 years-old, one of his disciples, who had remained in Lu and performed great military services for a leading warlord family, arranged for Confucius to return to Lu as an honorary member of the duke’s entourage and as a private teacher. In this way, disappointed politically but surrounded by many disciples, Confucius lived the rest of his days.” /+/

Analects on Confucius’s Disciples

Dr. Eno wrote: The “Analects” — the most famous of the Confucian texts —“ was composed by Confucius’s disciples and their admiring students. Although its goal is to portray Confucius and his ideas, almost every passage pictures the Master in the context of his followers, almost as a family. Indeed, Confucius almost seems to be like a father to his best disciples. After Confucius died, the disciple Zigong lived for three years in a hut by his grave, thus fulfilling an important ritual duty that properly belonged to Confucius’s son, who had unfortunately died earlier. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“In many ways, the “Analects” , which was composed to instruct later followers, is first and foremost a textbook on how to be a disciple. In the text, all the major disciples are portrayed with individual and distinct personalities and talents. It is almost as if each represents a possible character through which to approach the Confucian Dao. The “Analects” is famous for illustrating how Confucius would reply to identical questions from different disciples with different answers suited to the needs of each. /+/

“The literary structure of the text frequently alerts us to the fact that for the early followers, Confucianism was very much a matter of group loyalty and sentiment. Many passages illustrate no great point of Confucian thought, but are designed to make us feel more intimate with Confucius and his disciples, and to care more deeply for them. /+/

Confucius and his discipiles

“Many of the original disciples came to Confucius in the hope of “polishing” themselves so as to be better able to exploit the political opportunities which, by virtue of their patrician backgrounds, they were likely to encounter. As Confucius grew older, and especially after his exile from Lu at the age of about fifty, he became more and more convinced that in the amoral world of the late Zhou China, political participation would inevitably involve unacceptable ethical compromises. His concern increasingly became to forestall his followers from leaping into the sordid world of warlord politics, and encourage them to stay within the group and cultivate their ritual skills.” /+/

Dynamic Between Confucius and His Disciples

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “ As one probes deeper into the text, one increasingly comes to appreciate the dynamic that exists between the explicit content of Confucius’s thought and the subtlety with which the Confucian “family” of “shi” embody these ideas and give them aesthetic shape. The longest of all the “Analects” passages best illustrates this dynamic, and we will consider it in detail here. It represents a conversation between Confucius and four of his disciples, all of very different character. The first, the disciple Zilu (whom Confucius addresses by his personal name, Yu), only five years Confucius’s junior, was known for his impetuous and blustering ways (he later died in the valiant defense of the lord of the state of Wey). Ran Qiu, a politically prominent man in Lu, was an efficient bureaucrat in the service of a warlord household; Confucius approved of him, but frequently criticized his political role. Gongxi Hua (called Chi by Confucius) was a younger disciple, studious and serious, but anxious to get ahead. The last of the disciples, Zeng Dian, is the most obscure. Little is known of him outside this passage except that his son became one of the greatest of Confucius’s younger disciples – he is the only one of the four disciples who appears never to have taken a position in the service of a powerful patrician family. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“This long passage (11.26) breaks clearly into two portions, and it is the first of these which illustrates the richness of the Confucian vision and the way in which the text uses the disciples to illustrate it: “Zilu, Zeng Dian, Ran Qiu, and Gongxi Hua were sitting in attendance. The Master said, “Let us put aside your awareness that I am senior to you by a little. You gentlemen are always saying that no one recognizes you talents. If one day someone were to recognize them and employ you, then what would you do, if given your choice?” /+/

“Zilu immediately responded with vigor. “Give me a state of a thousand war chariots situated between two of the great powers, and let this state be suffering frequent invasions and famines. If I had the chance to manage such a state, within three years I would engender courage in the people and give them a sense of direction!” The Master smiled at him and went on. “Qiu, what about you?” “Give me a small state,” Ran Qiu replied, “just sixty or seventy “li” square, or even fifty or sixty. If I had the chance to manage such a state, within three years I could bring sufficiency to its people. As for rectifying its rituals and music, for that I would have to await the coming of a “junzi”.” “Chi,” said the Master, “what about you?” “I don’t say that I could do this, but I would like to study towards it. I would like to stand in ritual robes and act as the master of ceremonies at the ancestral altars and at meetings of state.” “Dian,” said the Master, “what about you?” The sounds of Dian’s zither died away. It rang as he laid it down and rose. “My thoughts differ from the others’,” he said. “What is the harm in that?” replied the Master. “After all, each of you is merely speaking his own wishes.” “In late spring,” said Zeng Dian, “when the spring clothing has all been sewn, I would go out with five or six capped young men and six or seven youths. We would bathe in the River Yi and stand in the wind on the stage of the great Rain Dance. Then chanting, we would return.” The Master sighed deeply. “I am with Dian,” he said. /+/

Confucius’s Regard for His Disciple Yan Yuan (Hui)

Yan Yuan

Short passages from the “Analects” on Confucius’s regard for his disciple Yan Yuan (Hui): The Master said, “I can talk to Hui all day long and he will contradict nothing I say, like a stupid fellow. Yet when I later observe his actions, they are in all respects well performed. No, Hui is not stupid.” (2.9) The Master asked Zigong, “Between you and Hui, whom would you say is superior?” Zigong replied, “How can I compare to Hui? Hui hears one point and understands ten. I hear one and understand two.” The Master said, “Yes, you do not come up to him. Neither you nor I comes up to him!” (5.9) “How fine Hui is! A plate of food, a ladle of water, living in a humble alley. Others could not bear the cares, but Hui never wavers from his happiness. How fine Hui is!” (6.11) “Hui is no help to me! He delights in all I say.” (11.4) When Yan Yuan died, the Master cried, “Oh! Heaven has bereft me! Heaven has bereft me!” (11.9) When Yan Yuan died, the Master wailed for him without proper restraint. The disciples said, “Sir, you are beyond the proper bounds.” “Am I?” said the Master. “Well, if not for this man, then for whom should I wail so?” (11.10) [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“When Yan Yuan died, his father asked the Master for his carriage that he might use the wood to fashion an outer as well as an inner coffin for his son. The Master said, “Able or not, each man speaks for his own son. When my son Li died he had an inner coffin but no outer one. I would not leave myself to walk on foot even on his behalf, for I must follow behind the grandees of state and may not walk without a carriage.” (11.8) When Yan Yuan died, the disciples wished to mount a lavish funeral on his behalf. The Master said, “You must not do this.” The disciples did so anyway. The Master said, “Hui looked upon me as a father, but I have not been able to care for him as a son. It is not I who am to blame, gentlemen. It is you!” (11.11) /+/

“Duke Ai of Lu questioned which of the disciples loved learning. Confucius replied, “Yan Hui loved learning. He never transferred his anger to another, he never repeated a mistake. Alas, he died young. Now there is none like him. I have yet to know another who loved learning.” (6.3) The Master said, “Hui could go three months at a time without his heart deviating from "ren". As for the others, they merely happened upon ren from time to time.” (6.7) When he passed through the state of Kuang, the Master was in danger. Yan Yuan caught up with him after having fallen behind. “I thought you had been killed,” said the Master. “While you are alive,” said Yan Yuan, “how would I dare to die?” (11.23) /+/

Later Life and Death of Confucius

Confucius's tomb in Qufu

Dr. Eno wrote: “After years in the wilderness, the warlords of Lu finally agreed to let Confucius return to his homeland and live out his final years as a teacher, poor, but honored by many, and served to the end by a faithful corps of disciples, who attended to his needs in old age and mourned him as sons in death (Confucius’s only son died before him). [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Most of Confucius's later life was occupied in training a group of dedicated disciples in the arts of “li”, which included many dimensions of inherently rewarding aesthetic practice: learning the poetry, music, and dance of the former Sages, as well as the intensely choreographed ceremonies of ancestor worship and other religious rituals. Confucius's students were among the most literate and artistically accomplished men of their time. But to Confucius's great chagrin, none of these great ritual achievements seemed to move China any closer to an escape from the chaos of the feudal age. /+/

The last years of Confucius’s life were spent in Qufu, teaching and editing classical literature. He lived there in a small cottage and preached under an apricot tree. Describing his methods, one of his students wrote: "When the master entered the Grand Temple he asked questions about everything."

Confucius died in 479 B.C. at the age of 72 an unrecognized itinerant teacher and a disappointed man. His last words reportedly were: "No intelligent monarch arises; there is not one in the kingdom that will make me his master. My time has come to die."

According to legend, the year after his death his cottage was turned into a temple; his disciples spent three whole years mourning; and Tzu-kung, his leading disciple, spent another three years at his grave. "From the birth of mankind until now," Tzu-kung declared, "there has never been the equal of Confucius."

Canonization of Confucius

Thomas A. Wilson of Hamilton College wrote: “After his death, Kongzi was honored by the court and posthumously ennobled as a king. Throughout imperial China, he was conferred a number of different titles... between the time of his death and his final title, Great Completer, Ultimate Sage, Exalted First Teacher of Culture in 1645. [Source: Thomas A. Wilson, Hamilton College, the Cult of Confucius: Images of the Temple of Culture / ]

“By posthumously ennobling Kongzi, first as duke and later as king, the imperial court promoted and endorsed Confucianism. In addition to elevating the figure of Kongzi to increasingly great statuses, emperors also conferred hereditary titles of nobility upon his descendents, initially as marquises. By Song times, however, Kongzi's descendants were given the title of duke, a position they held until the 1940s. Critical to this careful attention to the person of Kongzi as the embodiment of the literati tradition was the state cult, which centered upon offering sacrifices to Kongzi's spirit in the Kong temple.

“The sacrifices to the spirit of Kongzi was part of a larger system of cult sacrifices to other gods and spirits. This pantheon was headed by Heaven, to which only the emperor offered sacrifices at an altar in the southern suburbs of the imperial city, followed by Earth, which received sacrifices at an altar in the northern suburbs.

“An important event in the canonizing process occurred in 195 B.C., when the founding emperor of the Han dynasty, Han Gaozu (r. 206-195 B.C.), offered a Great Sacrifice to the spirit of Confucius at his tomb in Qufu. As early as 241, sacrfices to the spirits of Kongzi and his most prominent disciple, Yan Hui, were offered in the Imperial University (Biyong).

Posthumous Titles Conferred to Kongzi: 478 BCE (Jingwang 42): Duke Ai of Lu posthumously confers title of Venerable Ni; 1 CE (Western Han dynasty: Emperor Ping, 1st year/6th month/10th day of the Yuanshi era): Exalted Ni Duke of Consummate Perfection (Baocheng xuan Ni gong; Ni is a reference to Mt. Ni, southeast of Qufu, where Kongzi's mother prayed for a child before he was born.); 492 (Latter Wei: Emperor Xiaowen, Taihe 16/2/21): Sage of Culture Venerable Ni (Wensheng Nifu); 580 (Latter Zhou: Emperor Jing, Daxiang 2/3/1): Duke of the state of Zou (Zouguo gong); 608 (Sui: Emperor Yang, forth year of the Daye era): First Teacher Venerable Ni (Xianshi Nifu); 628 (Tang: Emperor Taizong, Zhenguan 2/12): First Sage (Xiansheng); 637 (Tang: Emperor Taizong, Zhenguan 11): Exalted and Venerable (Xuanfu); 657 (Tang Emperor Gaozong, Xianqing 2): restored to First Sage (Xiansheng); 739 (Tang: Emperor Xuanzong, Kaiyuan 27/8/23): Exalted King of Culture (Wenxuan wang); 1008 (Song: Emperor Zhenzong, Dazhong xiangfu 1/10/1): Dark Sage and Exalted King of Culture (Xuansheng wenxuan wang); 1013 (Song: Emperor Zhenzong, Dazhong xiangfu 5/12/29): Ultimate Sage and Exalted King of Culture (Zhisheng wenxuan wang); 1307 (Yuan: Emperor Wu, Dade 11/7/18): Great Completer, Ultimate Sage and Exalted King of Culture (Dacheng zhisheng wenxuan wang); 1370 (Ming: Hongwu 3/6/6): noble titles for all gods and spirits of the imperial pantheon eliminated (e.g., 5 sacred peaks, the 4 seas); only Kongzi's (and other figures enshrined in the Kong temple) title is retained.; 1530 (Jiajing emperor 9): Ultimate Sage, First Teacher Master Kong (Zhisheng xianshi Kongzi); 1645 (Qing: Shunzhi emperor, 2/1/23): Great Completer, Ultimate Sage, Exalted First Teacher of Culture (Dacheng zhisheng xianshi Kongzi).”

Impact of Confucius

Dr. Eno wrote: “During his younger life, Confucius attracted a number of political actors in the state of Lu, who came to him to learn more about Zhou ritual forms and his own political views (which he came to claim reflected those of the sages of the past, including the Zhou founders). Two of these men were actually stewards of the leading warlord clans – men of substantial influence. It appears that Confucius plotted with them to arrange an effective disarmament of the warlord strongholds and a restoration of legitimate ducal power. Presumably, Confucius hoped that his assistance to a revived ducal house would induce the dukes to change their policies and behavior along Confucian lines as well.” but as mentioned before his effort to put his lan into effect around 500 B.C. did not work and Confucius was forced into exile, spending the next 15 years of his life wandering “with many of his disciples from state to state in eastern China, looking for a ruler who would adopt his policies and employ him as minister. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“While Confucius saw himself as a revivalist, the impact of his teachings was entirely radical. It is doubtful whether the intensely ritualized past on which he modeled his ideal future had ever existed in the form he imagined. In fact, Confucius’s dual celebration of legitimate rulers and men of moral talent left little role for the hereditary patrician class. Few class members belonged to ruling lineages, and if social and political prestige was to be tied to issues of etiquette and learning rather than birth, what significant advantage did this leave them? Confucius was known to accept as a disciple any man who could afford as little as a (proverbial) bundle of sausages for tuition. While it may be doubtful how many of Confucius’s own disciples rose to high rank, his ideas spurred a new growth industry of private teachers who trained all comers for participation in the political and military arenas. /+/

“Confucians also seem to have made a radical reconfiguration of the past in their story of the history of Chinese culture. In the Confucian account of China’s history, the founding rulers and most perfect sages are the three emperors Yao, Shun, and Yu (known as the founder of the Xia Dynasty). The first two are particularly revered. The mythology connected with Yao and Shun places great emphasis on the fact that they chose not to pass along their thrones to their sons. Instead, acting in a way radically different from the norms of the truly historical periods of the Shang and Zhou, they passed the throne on the basis of merit alone, without any consideration of birth. According to the Confucian story, Shun and Yu were chosen solely as the most worthy men of the land; their fathers are, in fact, generally pictured as evil men of uncertain social background. This mythology seems to reflect an important tendency among Warring States Confucians to attack the very notion of hereditary legitimacy, for rulers as well as for patrician warlords. In this way, Confucius represents the articulation of an ideology that challenges the exclusivity of the patrician class, and reconceives the very notion of the patrician as a person of high worth, rather than a person of high birth.” /+/

The 18th century French philosopher Voltaire and his views on enlightenment were influenced by Confucianism. The German mathematician and scholar Gottfried Leibniz wrote that the Chinese should “send missionaries to us to teach us the purpose and use of natural theology in the same way as we send missionaries to instruct them in revealed theology."

Development of Confucianism and Confucian Thought

Ancient copy of the Analects from Dunhuang

Dr. Eno wrote: “Confucius developed his ideas about the year 500 B.C. He was apparently well known to patricians in eastern China during his lifetime, but his thought initially had little influence outside his small group of immediate follows. As these men dispersed and took disciples of their own, however, Confucian thought became increasingly widespread. Not only did significant numbers of young men become trained in the ritual arts taught by Confucian masters, but the idealistic political rhetoric of Confucians, which drew heavily from early Zhou political traditions, took on a type of independent legitimacy. Somewhat as much of today’s rhetoric of “political correctness” is now routinely employed by people who have no firm political commitment, the rhetoric of Confucianism became important to political discourse despite the fact that virtually no Confucians seem to have been significant political actors during the Classical period. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“After Confucius’s death, two other great thinkers enlarged upon the Master’s ideas in significant ways. Mencius, who lived two centuries after Confucius, made major adjustments in Confucian philosophy, better equipping it to respond to assaults launched against it by newer styles of thought. He also stands as the only major Confucian ever to occupy high political position in a major state – albeit his days in power were few and unfortunate. Xunzi was the most brilliant of all ancient Confucian theoreticians. He lived a generation after Mencius, and wrote perhaps the most carefully conceived and argued set of essays in the Classical period. In this section, we will focus solely on the ideas of Confucius as reported by his later followers. We will consider Mencius and Xunzi later, in the context of Warring States intellectual trends.” /+/

“While prolonged study of Confucian thought leads to an appreciation of its originality, the overall framework in which that thought was expressed was explicitly conservative. Confucius’s prescription for the ailments of late Zhou China was based on a revivalist goal: Return to the ritual norms of early Zhou society; restore to the patrician lineages that were first granted patrimonial estates the actual power of rulership; revive the formulas for personal and political virtue established by the Zhou founders and expressed in the oldest Zhou texts. Actually, had all of Confucius’s conservative programs been adopted, the outcome would have been a very radical transformation of late Zhou society. Consequently, although Confucius himself seems to have claimed that all he was seeking was a readjustment of social relations to better accord with established norms, his thought actually represented a form of radical conservatism. This was apparently recognized by contemporary rulers, who rejected Confucius’s programs as too dangerous to their own established power.” /+/


The principal source for the thought of Confucius is a text known as “The Analects of Confucius”. “Analects” means brief sayings or literary fragments. The original Chinese title meant “collated sayings”. Confucius reportedly compiled the sayings, aphorism, maxims and episodes that make up The Analects during his retirement. But this seems unlikely. The 20 chapters and 497 verses of The Analects were unknown until 300 years after his death. More likely they were compiled by his disciples and written down by other people. Confucius himself once said he merely "transmitted" what was taught to him "without making anything up" on his own. The first half of The Analects is stylistically and thematically very different from the second half. University of Southern California historian John Wills Jr. told Atlantic Monthly, "We have known for a long time that some of the later parts of the book are suspect. After Chapter Ten or Twelve you get a lot of fishy Taoist stuff."

Dr. Eno wrote: Each chapters is “composed of a series of sayings in an order which sometimes seems cogent, but more often seems random. The text is clearly a conjoining of several smaller texts that were put together over several centuries by Confucius’s disciples and subsequent followers. It is extremely difficult to ascertain which portions of the text reliably report what Confucius actually said and did, and which belong instead to a body of legend that grew around the figure of Confucius after his death. The confusing form of the text and the mysteries of its origins add to its aura of sanctity and make it one of the most exciting texts in the world (it is extremely common for Westerners to find the text simplistic and dull on first reading, and profound and moving after many readings). [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Confucius is sometimes pictured in conversation with various powerful patricians in his home state of Lu and elsewhere, but most often with his students, who are generally believed to have begun to compile this collection son after the Master’s death. Among the most famous of these disciples are the humble but brilliant Yan Yuan (or Yan Hui), the impetuous Zilu, the diplomat Zigong, and the scholarly Zixia. These aphorisms and snippets of conversation reflect the fresh but unsystematic teachings of the earliest Confucians. /+/

“The convention in citing the “Analects” is to record after each selection the number of the chapter and passage within the chapter of each isolated saying or story, and we will follow that convention here... It should be understood that whenever you read a phrase such as “Confucius said,” or “Confucius believed,” what is meant is that the Confucius we see in the “Analects” asserts these things. Whether the “historical” Confucius made precisely the same assertions is not possible to determine and, in any event, it is the Confucius of the “Analects” whose influence became so great.” /+/

“Among the many translations of the “Analects” , well crafted versions by Arthur Waley (New York: 1938), D.C. Lau (Penguin Books, 1987, 1998), and Edward Slingerland (Indianapolis: 2003) are among the most accessible published. The “Analects” is a terse work with an exceptionally long and varied commentarial tradition; its richness and multiple levels of meaning make it a living document that reads differently to each generation (as true in China as elsewhere). Responsible interpreters vary in specific choices and overall understanding, and no single translation can be viewed as “definitive.”“ /+/

Famous Confucian Sayings

right Confucian sayings were recorded in “The Analects”, which begin with the proverb: "Is it not a pleasure when friends visit from afar!" The sayings, aphorism, maxims, episodes and proverbs in “The Analects” were very useful in educating the illiterate masses. They were easy to remember and could be passed down orally from one generation to the next.

The most famous Confucian saying is Confucian version of the Golden Rule — "I wound not want to do to others what I do not want them to do to me" — which is much better put that Biblical and Talmudic proverbs that convey the same thought: "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would want men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law of the prophets" (Matthew 7:12); "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow men. That is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary" (Shabbat, 31a).

Wisdom Confucius said was "when you know a thing, to recognize that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to recognize that you do not know it...the mistakes of a gentleman may be compared to the eclipses of the sun or the moon. When he makes a mistake, all men see it; when he corrects it, all men look up to him...When you have faults do not fear to abandon them."

Confucius recognized the importance of the arts. "It is by poetry that one's mind is aroused; it is by ceremonials that one's character is regulated; it is by music that one becomes accomplished." On the nature versus nurture argument, Confucius said: "By nature, men are near alike; it is by custom and habit that they are set apart."

Many of the sayings convey a message of never-ending self improvement. "When walking with a party of three," Confucius said, "I always have teachers. I can select the good qualities of the one for imitation, and the bad ones of the other and correct them in myself." Some sayings are hard to figure out. One reads: “When the villagers were exorcizing evil spirits, he stood in his court robes on the eastern steps."

Lesser Confucian sayings include: 1) "Be not ashamed of misstates and thus make them crime." 2) "Ignorance is the night of the mind, but a night without moon and stars." 3) "It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop." 4) "Study without reflection is a waste of time; reflection without study is dangerous." 5) "He who rules by moral force is like the pole star, which remains in place while all the lesser stars do homage to it." 6) "Study the past if you would define the future."

Chow Yun-fat Plays Confucius

In 2010 a state-backed film about Confucius was released with Chow Yun-Fat, better known as a tough guy in Hong Kong gangster movies, playing the great master. Chow is best known for his role in the Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but he made his name in high-octane Hong Kong gangster fare such asHard Boiled and A Better Tomorrow. [Source: The Guardian]

The film was directed is Hu Mei, one of the best known female directors of China's vaunted fifth generation. Her father, a conductor for an army orchestra, was imprisoned by the Red Guards, while her grandfather died in custody. The film is said to have had a budget of $23 million. Shot in Hebei province and at Hengdian studios in Zhejiang, it was is one of a number of films put together to celebrate 60 years of communist rule.

“Q Confucius No.2" by Chinese artist Zhang Huan is a massive, life-like statue of Confucius. Crafted from steel, silicone, carbon fiber, and acrylic, the statue is animatronic — its chest rises and falls to simulate breathing. The statue is part of Zhang Huan's “Q Confucius."

Image Sources: Brooklyn University, Amazon, YouTube, Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/; Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2021

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