Confucius was a Chinese writer, teacher and philosopher who lived from 551 to 479 BCE. His real name was Kong Qiu and was not called Confucius until Jesuit priests arrived in China 2000 years after his death.

Although born into a somewhat socially prestigious family, Confucius was not rich and was educated in the public school system, later working as a book-keeper and minor civil servant. He allegedly kept livestock to earn a little extra money.

Forced into exile by the internal frictions of a not-yet-united China, he wandered the minor courts of various Chinese kingdoms, making a living writing, teaching and editing classic works of Chinese thought.

However, during his own lifetime, he did not achieve any significant fame or impact for his ideas.


The philosophy of Confucius emphasized personal and governmental morality, rules around social and family relationships, and strongly focused on law and justice. Confucius’s theories received official sanction under the Han Dynasty and became a guiding principle of Chinese culture and government for 2000 years.

Confucius’s principles had a basis in already-old Chinese traditions. He strongly emphasised the family as the basic unit of society, as well as respect of elders by children and of husbands by wives. He also recommended the unit of the family as a parallel for the ideal government.


Confucius’s legacy was slow to develop. For the first 200 years after his death, he remained fairly unknown to most Chinese.

However, during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE), Confucianism became the state religion and shaped many Chinese values around family loyalty and duty, observance of law and responsibility and achievement of harmony.

Han China emphasized the importance of the law, a characteristic of Confucianism, and liked to characterise their rule as fair and judicial, a very Confucian concept.

In Confucianism, religious devotion is a means to express social and family responsibilities or to reflect on morality and values as much as any personal relationship with a creator-god.

The rise of Confucian thought gave strict roles and responsibilities on the basis of whether you were acting as a parent, spouse or child, and the male head of the household was effectively a mini-emperor in his own home.

Confucius believed that personal responsibility and fairness were morally essential, and is credited with the phrase, “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.”

We include more about Confucius and other great philosophers and philosophies in A Quick History of the Ancient World, which is being published later this year. Sign up to our mailing list now to receive a free copy before publication this summer, or to hear about our other exciting new books. Or alternatively, leave a comment below. Which other ancient philosophies are important to us today?


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